Alex is a lover of animals, and an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and and AS in Veterinary Technology.
When to See the Whales
Unless you spend a lot of time fishing off the Virginia coastline, you may be surprised to know that there are whales in the waters off Virginia. Actually, there are a lot of whales. From October through March whales are commonly seen in the waters off Virginia. Now, if you go further out to sea you may find several species out in the open ocean. However, I wouldn't necessarily call the open ocean the waters of Virginia.
If you are wanting to take a whale watching trip to see the whales you'll want to do a few things. Check out the websites for the whale watching tours. They'll start to make test runs in early October and when they start to regularly see whales they'll start to offer tours. They'll continue to offer tours for as long as there are regular whale sightings.
What Will You See?
The vast majority of the whales seen on whale watching tours off the shore of Virginia are humpback whales. These humpbacks are young males that are old enough to be away from their mother but not yet old enough to reproduce. Humpbacks are known for their long migrations. The females and the males that are old enough to reproduce will make the journey from the North Atlantic, some as far away as Norway. The females and mature males will make the entire journey down to the West Indies. The young males that aren't ready to compete for a female don't need to make the entire journey. Instead, these guys will stop in the waters off Virginia and North Carolina. Why there? The Gulf Stream is very close to the shore line. This ocean current brings warm waters from the tropics, which provides food for fish and shrimp, which in turns provides food for larger ocean animals. Like whales.
There is also the possibility that you may seen fin whales. These large whales are second only to the blue whale. They are not often seen on normal whale watching tours as they prefer to stay in the deeper waters of the open ocean. However, in the 2021-2022 what watching season several fin whales were seen just a few miles off the shore line. Much like the humpback whale the fin whales migrate from colder from the arctic to the warm waters of the tropics. As the fin whale is a pelagic species they are much harder to track, and the exact destination for these whales is unknown, though they have been seen near Bermuda and in the West Indies.
North Atlantic right whales are a possible species in the waters off Virginia. These whales are incredibly rare with only around 350 individuals estimated. They are similar to the humpback in that they are found in relatively shallow waters before the continental shelf drop off. They spend the majority of the year in the waters off New England and Canada. They travel to the warm waters off South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have their calves. This means these individuals seen off the shore of Virginia will not stay long as they are just passing through and they will most likely be pregnant females or females returning home with their calves.
There is also a fairly high chance that you may see Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. These dolphins are very common in the waters off Virginia and can be seen here year round. I've see dolphins a few yards off shore in every month while walking the beach at First Landing State Park. Of course, they are present in much higher numbers in the warmer months.
Harbor seals are also quite common in the waters of Virginia during the winter months. These little seals will be easiest to see if they are hauled out on the rocks around the shoreline. They can be seen with their heads out of the water in the open water, but they are so small they can be difficult to find.
What about Orcas?
Killer whales, or orcas, are very popular. They are the largest species of dolphin and are easily recognizable by their black and white coloration. Yes, orcas can be found in the waters off Virginia. However, they tend to stay more in the open ocean around 65 miles or so off the shoreline. If you can find a pelagic tour in the winter months there is a possibility of seeing these majestic hunters. However, they are not commonly seen. Much like the baleen whales the orcas are here seasonally, they are here hunting the animals that migrate to the warmer waters. I guess what I'm trying to say is if you see orcas on a whale watching tour off the shoreline of Virginia you should buy a lottery ticket.
Pick a Good Tour Company
When you purchase tickets for a whale watching tour, no matter where you decide to take your tour, make sure you are touring with a company that actually abides by all regulations. Whales are delicate creatures. A reputable tour company will respect the animals and not harass them, this means they will not follow animals or do anything that affects their natural behavior. At minimum they must maintain a distance of at least 100ft from marine mammals, some more endangered species require even more distance like the North Atlantic right whale.
These aren't just good rules to follow. It's the law. However, I'm sure it surprises no-one that not all companies follow the law and will do what they can to make a buck. As temping as it may be don't take tours with these companies. Ideally, your boat should bring you to a whale, you'll stay and watch that whale for a little while and then move on.
Check on the tour company's website and see if they advertise that they follow any federal guidelines or if they participate in marine mammal research programs. If you don't see any mention of these things then there is a high chance it is because they don't do it. The average person doesn't know what regulations must be followed and assume that they are followed when they take a whale watching tour. Don't fall for this. Look for tour programs that are a part of whale SENSE, a voluntary education and recognition program through NOAA. Companies that participate in this program are dedicated to responsible whale watching practices.
Two companies in Virginia Beach that run reputable whale watching programs are Rudee Tours and the Virginia Aquarium.
What to Wear
Weather in Virginia can be crazy. For example I took a whale watching tour in the middle of February, deep in to whale watching season. It was 70 and sunny that day. The next day it was 40 and snowing. It is also important to keep in mind that even if it is 70 at the beach it is most likely colder on the water and there will most likely be more wind on the water.
Check the weather forecast for your trip and plan accordingly. I strongly recommend wearing layers. Error on the side of being cold. I typically have a backpack with gloves and a hat with me. If I didn't need them when I was on the dock I very well may need them after an hour on the water. If I get warm I can put my jacket in the backpack. This way all my things stay together. When the whales are found everyone abandons their spot and moves to see the whales. Stuff is left everywhere. I like to know where my things are, and having a backpack helps with that.
I strongly recommend having something to cover your ears. It may not be cold enough for a winter jacket, but having your ears covered will help you stay comfortable. I also strongly recommend sunscreen. On sunny days you can get sunburn from the sunlight reflecting off the water, and you will be looking over the water for several hours on your tour.
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