Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia
By Alice Morris
During the cold winter months, most people don’t consider a day out at sea to be their idea of fun.
If you’re a whale fanatic though, winter may be the perfect time to get out on the water in search of humpbacks, as they make their way from the cold, northern regions of Canada, Greenland, and Iceland towards the Dominican Republic.
On their way to warmer waters, humpback whales pass through Virginia Beach where marine life enthusiasts can take advantage of the season’s high concentration of whales.
The Virginia Aquarium has been operating whale-watching trips in the Virginia Beach area since 1989, ferrying groups of people out to sea in hopes of catching a glimpse of whales and other marine life.
Jimmy Crisher, captain for Virginia Aquarium Sea Adventures has over thirty years of experience on whale watch vessels.
“After doing this for so long you get pretty good at finding them,” Crisher says. “Look for the footprint. That’s where they breach.”
This “footprint” is marked by the disturbed water a whale creates when it flicks its tail or fluke in a downward motion.
Throughout his long career, Crisher has had plenty of opportunities to get up close to whales, but one encounter sticks out in his mind.
This particular behavior, called ‘spyhopping’ is when whales breach vertically out of the water. Experts believe this may be a way for whales to get a look at what’s happening above the water line.
“If that’s true,” says boat program coordinator Alexis Rabon, “then these curious animals may be recognizing that we’re there, and saying hello.”
Spyhopping and other forms of breaching are important to researchers because they allow data collectors to photograph whales for identification purposes.
Since 1990, the Virginia Aquarium has gathered data on over 250 humpback whales, many of which show up in other places along the whales’ migration route.
“Photo-identification tells us the distribution, seasonality, and migration routes of the animals coming through,” says Rabon. “That information can help with us making decisions on vessel speeds entering the area, whale-human interaction issues, and contribute to federal and regional management of marine mammal populations and environmental assessments.”
Whale sightings this year have been particularly good.
“There isn’t a day this year that we haven’t seen any whales,” says Crisher. “Every time you think you’ve seen it all, you see something different.”
The winter whale-watching season continues through March 5th. Learn more about Virginia Aquarium’s whale watching trips.