Road Trip

A Whale of a Sail in Virginia

Sunday, February 10, 2008

WHERE: Virginia Beach.

WHY: Close encounters with cetaceans and fried fish.

HOW FAR: About 13 miles from start to finish.

Thar she blows! At least until mid-March. In Virginia Beach, winter is whale-watching season, so keep your eyes peeled, your camera on and your call-out ready.

When the weather chills, Atlantic humpback and fin whales leave their summer waters near Maine and migrate south. Some travel all the way to the Caribbean to mate and give birth, and along the route come within a few hundred yards of Virginia Beach's coastline, where they snack on small fish.

The animals' breaches and blows sometimes can be seen from the shore, but to get closer, try the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center's whale-watching boat trips, held December through the middle of March. The 2 1/2 -hour voyages are on 65-foot vessels and narrated by guides well-schooled in whales and the marine ecosystem. Sightings are not guaranteed. (On our tour, we saw nothing but boats and birds, though the group before us spotted dolphins.) But don't lose hope: Fin whales and humpbacks come up for air every few minutes.

Experts say February is the peak time to whale-watch. If you see one, it's easy to know your fin from your humpback. Fin whales are long, sleek and smooth; the stubby humpbacks have heads covered in fleshy knobs called tubercles and undersides decorated with ventral pleats that look like high-riding cummerbunds. The whales each weigh about one ton per foot, with humpbacks reaching 45 feet in adulthood and fins stretching to 70 feet.

Many thousands of humpback and fin whales live off the East Coast, and hundreds of them swim past the Old Dominion's beaches each year. Turns out Virginia is for whale lovers, too.

-- Ben Chapman

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