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Whale of a Time

Winter Wildlife in Virginia Beach

Boats flooded Rudee Inlet thanks to the Rock Shout Out, an annual fishing competition at Virginia Beach, but I watched them diminish in the distance as the Virginia Aquarium’s vessel headed toward Cape Henry Lighthouse.

An earlier tour had spotted some humpback whales there, and while the aquarium’s Winter Wildlife boat trip doesn’t guarantee whale sightings, that’s the reason we were braving the cold.

This first week of January, with the weather unseasonably mild, dolphins and whales alike remained close to shore, as that’s where they’ll find the fish they feed on. Still, having dreamed of seeing whales in the wild for as long as I can remember, the reminder I issued – There’ll be plenty to see even if the whales never surface! – was more for me than for my two daughters. Nine-year-old Annabelle busied herself creating a checklist of potential animal sightings: humpback whales, fin whales, bottlenose dolphins, brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, northern gannets, and laughing gulls. One of the women on the boat shared how this was her third time on the tour and she had yet to spot a whale. Meanwhile, I stared at the blue expanse, fiddling with the Sea-Bands around my wrists, hoping these in combo with the Dramamine, would prevail over seasickness, despite the choppy water. I prayed for some sign of life.

When the guide finally announced, “Whales on the left!” my heart leapt. Water sprayed into the air from the humpback’s blowhole like a column of steam from a geyser. Annabelle and I shouted in unison, “I saw it!” Although a glance over at my husband and our five-year-old didn’t indicate they shared our extraordinary excitement, I felt a wave of relief. At least I’d seen something. My eyes stayed fixed on the horizon, struggling to distinguish the difference between the darkness of a lapping wave and the hump of a whale. Then, just as a parent’s eyes adjust to find his or her child’s face in a crowd, I saw its spray again.

With whales surfacing for air approximately every fifteen minutes, it wasn’t long before our guide shouted, “Whales on the right!” Annabelle and I darted to the other side of the boat, climbing over benches while trying to maintain our balance, and our composure, on the moving boat. I peered over the shoulders of the row of spectators who had gotten there before me to spy gigantic, barnacle-covered humps breaking through the water a mere ten feet from starboard.

When one of their tails, referred to by scientists as flukes, lifted up into the air – just as they do in every wildlife calendar I’ve ever received free in the mail – I gasped. While the whale didn’t flap its tail noisily against the surface, a behavior called lobbing which is believed to be a means of communication, I didn’t care. I found their sheer size awe-inspiring. “Annabelle, did you see it?” I asked, afraid to remove my eyes from the now serene landscape. Her confirmation warmed my heart despite the afternoon’s brisk wind.

I spent the next couple of hours frantically running from side to side. The Virginia coast is prime whale country this time of year, as the humpbacks are en route to the tropics to have their calves, which can’t withstand the harsh temperatures of the North Atlantic since they’re born without blubber. While we didn’t see any fin whales during our tour, these creatures follow the same path of migration, spending the warm months feeding near the poles and traveling close to the equator to breed. Dolphins will frequently make an appearance during the Winter Wildlife outing, as they did during our trip as well.

In between the clicking of my camera’s shutter, we learned about the whale’s watery footprint and how a good captain knows which direction to head based on these smooth, circular formations left from the power stroke of the tail. Once the whale returns under water, its oily residue combines with the up-thrust of its tail to create a round, calm area of flat water.

Although our sightings had been plentiful, the aquarium’s experts on board believed we essentially saw three sets of two whales, as well as a couple of loners. i must say the thing that surprised me most about the trip was the frequency with which we spotted whales together. i knew they’d be massive. these are the largest mammals on earth, weighing as much as 79,000 pounds and consuming some 3,000 pounds of food daily. But i never thought of them as having companions, despite the fact that i knew they sing songs while mating.

Another guide explained that the greater the human presence on the ocean, the harder it is for these magnificent creatures to find each other. With their other senses limited in the water, male whales rely heavily on their songs, a pattern of regular and predictable sounds, to communicate during the mating period. the ambient noise caused by the excessive boat activity makes this hard. i couldn’t help but think of how much we share in common with the humpbacks, as modern distractions keep so many people from connecting with their loved ones as well.

As the guide continued with fascinating details about the size of the whale’s mouth, comparable to that of a two-car garage, i felt even more humbled by the ways in which humans are making life so much more difficult for these whales. Despite its tremendous girth, the whale’s throat is actually only the size of a plastic milk gallon carton, which when accidentally consumed, gets stuck and prevents the whale from eating anything else.

Noise pollution, like the roar of the many boat motors in the fishing competition, is the biggest threat to whales. Collisions with ships, entanglements in fishing gear, and of course, commercial whaling are the other ways humans have interfered with their well-being. Although the hunting of humpbacks was banned in 1966, for centuries before that, they had been killed, reducing their population by over 90 percent to a mere 5,000. Fortunately, due to the ban, they’ve come back from the brink of extinction, with marine scientists estimating 80,000 worldwide.

While none of the mighty whales we saw breached the water, as it’s unusual for them to propel themselves out of the shallow water along Virginia Beach’s coastline, our family is thrilled to now be part of this exclusive whale watcher’s club. Our guide pointed out that few individuals have gotten a chance to see these magnificent creatures in the wild.

I know this will be an experience I’ll cherish forever, so i was delighted to hear Annabelle echo the same sentiment. We’ve got nothing against dolphins in this family. in fact, Annabelle and i swam with those playful creatures during a recent trip to Florida. But when my husband spied dolphins from the balcony of our Virginia Beach hotel the morning after the Winter Wildlife boat trip, our daughter responded, “nothing can compare to what we saw yesterday.”

Big-Time Family Adventure

Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau is the official source for travel information. I suggest you take some time to discover the undersea wildlife, as well as land dwellers at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. We spent three hours here and easily could have stayed longer, as the newest exhibit, Restless Planet, features four habitats from around the world that existed in Virginia millions of year ago. It’s home to 6,000 new animals and 367 species, including Komodo dragons, which particularly impressed my girls. Explore live-animal exhibits and engage in hands-on activities with the kids to demonstrate the processes that shaped Virginia’s current landscape.

Then, head to the Virginia Beach Fishing Center for an excursion narrated by trained educators from the Virginia Aquarium. Tickets are available for purchase at the dock, but can also be bought in advance through the aquarium. Children under three are free, which makes sense since little ones might not get as much out of the experience. It can be difficult for them to stay focused on looking for whales in the distance.

The temperature was in the high sixties when we left the harbor at three o’clock, but don’t be fooled by warmer temps if you’re so lucky when you go. Bundle up in layers for best protection against the strong winds and moist environment. The tour lasts a little over two hours and conditions make it feel colder than it is. I didn’t find sunglasses to be a must, but that might have been because I was the one taking pictures.

If you’re concerned about motion sickness, I highly recommend Dramamine. My children didn’t take anything, but my younger daughter did complain of a sore tummy so something may have been a good idea. It’s far from a smooth sail. Also, if you want to go all out, keep in mind that the Winter Wildlife trip is just one of many ways you can interact with animals through the Virginia Aquarium. The facility now offers opportunities to feed sea turtles or swim with sea lions. I’m thinking maybe next year…

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.
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