Virginia Aquarium's Whale Watching Boat Tours
by Michael Mizell (Virginia Aquarium Boat Programs Coordinator)
One of our most popular experiences is the opportunity to encounter awe-inspiring marine wildlife right where they live, in the water. During the summer months, many Virginia Aquarium guests enjoy the Dolphin Watch boat tours which offer the chance to spot Virginia Beach’s most common and charismatic whale species, the bottlenose dolphin. During our colder winter months, we offer boat tours with the chance to observe some of the largest whales that visit our region, and you don’t have to go far offshore to see them. During our Whale Watch boat tours guests might see humpback whales, or even encounter fin, minke, and right whales, to name just a few!
As the temperatures cool in early winter, large whale action starts to heat up. Humpback whales that spent the summer fattening on food in northern feeding grounds, start to make the journey south toward warm tropical waters to mate and birth calves. But not all of them finish this long trip. Some whales stop along the mid-Atlantic coast, including our shorelines, feeding on the plentiful supply of local menhaden and other small fish. It is these amazing and massive visitors to our Virginia Beach waters that we invite you to experience. So, purchase your ticket, bundle up for the frigid weather, and join us on the Atlantic Explorer for a Virginia Aquarium Whale Watch boat tour.
But maybe you are curious about what exactly to expect on one of these tours. Let us share a bit more.
Embarking from the Aquarium boat dock near the Seal Exhibit, your journey begins on Owls Creek. Here the crew will search for and point out the wide variety of birds wintering in the Chesapeake Bay region. Look all around because birds might be flying in the sky, roosting in the trees, or sitting among the cordgrasses in the surrounding marsh habitat. Once the boat passes through Rudee Inlet and out onto the Atlantic Ocean, sights are set on the surface looking for the first glimpses of a whale, like its dark back just breaking the water’s surface and the lingering mist of its visible breath. The crew will continue to scan the sky for flocks of birds. Especially exciting to see is a flock of northern gannets because they share in the same menu as whales, meaning one might be nearby. It is entertaining just watching these birds as they dive headfirst into the water, putting on quite a show.
The path each tour takes varies, and no two experiences are identical. One tour might journey due east from Rudee Inlet and out to the shipping channel. Another could head north and travel beyond the Cape Henry Light Houses, to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Or we may take a right out of the inlet and head south to Sandbridge.
Several factors dictate where and how far we go on any particular tour. We may travel to the area where we last saw whales. Fishermen and other boaters often communicate with us about the locations of recent whale sightings. We monitor the water under large flocks of diving and feeding gannets because they signal to us where whale food is readily available. Basically, we “listen” to nature to direct the path.
During the 2 to 2 ½ hour tour, a knowledgeable Aquarium Educator will enthrall guests with loads of information about the whales and other marine wildlife found near Virginia Beach. Volunteer Educators on board answer guests’ questions and provide added eyes for the whale search. While we encourage all guests to dress for the weather, and in fact wear more layers than you might think you need, if someone does need a moment to warm up, the 65-foot boat has a climate-controlled cabin. Inside there are tables and benches and even a ship store where you can purchase souvenirs, snacks, adult beverages, hot chocolate, and coffee. But even while taking a brief break to warm up, everyone is encouraged to keep a gaze on the horizon as it is all-eyes-on-deck in search of the whales.
One of the most exciting moments on a tour is when a whale sighting is suspected. The first thing someone might see from a distance is a mist spraying up from the surface of the water which, if a whale is present, this spray might be the whale’s visible breath. When air and climate conditions are just right, the mist lingers for a few moments before dissipating. The captain will slow the engines and allow plenty of room for the whale when it resurfaces. At this point, all guests are fully engaged and the excitement is palpable. Guests watch the water with a laser focus (and usually a directed camera lens) as everyone wants to be the first to confirm the sighting. Seconds to several minutes may pass until the whale resurfaces. Eventually, the whale comes up to breathe and this time the back and dorsal fin are visible. Many oohs, awws, and camera clicks fill the air. Typically, a humpback whale will stay near the surface for several breaths before diving again. As it dives, the humpback whale points its head down, slowly arching its back, and at this moment the whale may show off its iconic tail fluke. The humpback whale fluke displays black and white patterns that are as individually unique as fingerprints are to humans. Fluke sightings make for magnificent pictures and leave indelible memories!
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While we want these tours to be an amazing and unforgettable experience for everyone, wildlife safety is a priority. After all, we are entering their home. While enjoying and observing a whale, the captain, crew, and educators watch closely to see where the whale is in relation to the boat. We do our best to keep 100 yards between the whale and the boat. The Virginia Aquarium is Whale SENSE accredited, meaning we follow NOAA whale watching guidelines to ensure that the whales are allowed to go about their natural behavior while guests onboard and other boaters in the area remain safe.
As the tour nears its close, the captain steers to boat back toward shore, but the experience isn’t over. Volunteer educators continue to interact with passengers, offering them the chance to touch and learn about various biofacts, like whale baleen or a whale bone provided by our Stranding Response Team, (who responds to sick, injured, and deceased marine mammals and sea turtles). This quieter closing time of the tour is when everyone, guests and crew alike, tends to reflect on what they just witnessed. Some compare and share stories and pictures from the present and past tours. It is a time to decompress from the excitement of the journey and all that was just experienced. Honestly, whether it is one’s first time on a Whale Watch Tour or tenth, everyone seems to leave inspired.
Unfortunately, specific wildlife sightings cannot be guaranteed, and there are occasions when these elusive large whales are out of our range and sight. Yet every tour reminds us that this immense, amazing ocean, a massive world teeming with life and wonder, exists just outside the tiny little Rudee inlet. We can’t escape getting lost in the vastness of the Atlantic. And, when it comes to whale watching, a large part is the adventure itself: boarding the boat with loved ones and other kindred spirits, who are also seeking outdoor adventures; scanning the horizon in search of diving gannets, whale blows, and other clues indicating a massive whale might be hidden just below the waves; gaining amazing knowledge from our Aquarium educators. Regardless of whether or not a whale is sighted, the value is found in experiencing nature and the adventure of the tour. Leave the stresses of work and the hustle and bustle of life on land and center yourself with the sights, sounds, smells, and feels that nature has to offer. This is where the true value lies.