We are all spoiled, in a way, by National Geographic specials and the nature channels. Researchers and photographers may spend weeks or months in the wild, watching and waiting with mega-telephoto lens poised.
So I wondered if I would be disappointed as I booked our family two adults, three kids, no mega-lenses on a whale-watching cruise out of Virginia Beach run by the Virginia Marine Science Museum. I'd seen television specials with enormous whales breaching, their flukes raised high, and improbable underwater shots and even snippets of whales singing through the seas. Could reality match that? Would we even see whales?
Two kinds of whales pass the winter months (January through early March) at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile from the relatively deserted shoreline. While their elders are cavorting and calving in the warmer waters of the Carribean, juvenile (ages 2 to 7) humpback whales who are not yet of mating age hang around and pack on the pounds. Finback or fin whales, second only to blue whales in immensity, also eat their fill in these waters brimming with bait fish. Find huge groups of fish, and such cetaceans may be near.
During the whale season, the museum charters several 75-foot boats from local fishermen to take out the crowds who want to encounter whales in the wild. (These same boats handle the museum's dolphin-watching trips in warmer months.) Naturalists from the museum sit on the upper deck to narrate and shoot pictures (they're keeping track of the whales' migratory habits); passengers hang out on deck or can warm up inside the cabin.
With a freezing wind in our faces, we headed east out of Rudee Inlet toward a spiraling column of seabirds, one clue to the presence of fish below. Our volunteer interpreter, a handsome young guy in a dark coverall, had never seen so many Northern gannets a large, sleek, yellow-necked bird that dives for its dinner in one place. The boat's fish-finder device detected massive schools below.
Idling amid the schools of fish, the boat grew quiet as nearly a hundred pairs of eyes of all ages and sizes searched the cold, sun-glinted waters with a focus as intense as Captain Ahab's. Each of us passed the five, 10, then 15 minutes yearning to be the first one to spot a whale and cry out, "Thar she blows!"
"There it is," someone yelled, which was close enough; we all surged to the bow. Stuck behind some tall gawkers, I jockeyed and stood on tiptoe. And missed the whale entirely.
It was a fin whale identifiable by its tall spout and prominent fin which the naturalist estimated to be about 60 feet long and about half a football field away.
Eventually, the mate asked the crowd standing on the raised prow to step down and give others a chance to watch. My five-year-old and I stepped up to the railing. The boat remained quiet with concentration as I scanned the swells, squinting left and right, then left and right again.
"There it is," I shouted, pointing toward a pouf of spray as a smooth, finned mass emerged from the blue. My pulse surged as I watched the dark shape in amazement.
With whale-watching, it is as much what you don't see as what you do. The quickened pulse comes from realizing that this smallish fin is only the tip of the behemoth below, who is dining unperturbed by a boatful of puny, camera-wielding fellow-mammals.
"Did you see it?" I asked my son. He nodded solemnly, his eyes still fastened to the waters.
Swimming slowly for a finback, the whale reemerged nearby several times within the next half hour. In deeper waters, finbacks may sound for long periods of time. But the shelf below us was only 35 feet down.
Using yet another clue to a whale's whereabouts a radio call from a boat that's seen one nearby we left the fin whale to trail a pair of humpbacks. While the movements of fin whales are largely unpredictable, humpbacks tend to set a feeding course and stick with it. In such shallow waters, they also blow and surface every three minutes or so, making for awesome whale-watching. For nearly half an hour our boat motored on a course roughly parallel to the humpbacks, who were, our guide said, exhibiting unusual behavior; they swam nearly touching each other and emerged from the waves like synchronized swimmers.
At one climactic moment, their glossy, bumpy backs surfaced no more than 15 yards from where my husband and I stood, our eyes and mouths wide with joy. We were close enough to hear them blow.
The enthusiasm on the boat fell and rose like the waves with the disappearance and reappearance of the pair. After a dozen sightings, they felt like rare, old friends.
Quickly accustomed to the highlights of nature, our boys retreated to watch the whales from a countertop in the cabin and eat popcorn. Another fin whale blew off the prow, but our time was up. No one seemed disappointed just cold, and really psyched. Elated at our luck, we left the boat beaming involuntarily a condition hardly ever induced by the nature channels.
Being There: After your whale or dolphin cruise, hightail it over to the fabulous Virginia Marine Science Museum (757/425-3474), where you'll see sharks, harbor seals, river otters and (my favorite) sea turtles, with expressions like inscrutable elders. Unlike the National Aquarium, this museum offers lots of hands-on, real-life exhibits everything from marsh grasses to wave tanks. Several well-staffed touch tanks feature a wide array of animals, including rays, sea stars and sea robins. In whale-watching season the museum shows the must-see Imax film, "Whales," complete with magnificent shots off a deserted coast of Argentina and in Alaskan waters.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort (800/94-BEACH), which has an indoor pool, but cheap accommodations abound in the winter and some hotels offer whale-watching or dolphin-watching packages. Call the City of Virginia Beach Reservations (800-822/3224) or Virginia Beach Central Reservations (800/828-7477).
Where to Eat: Big Sam's (757/428-4858) at Rudee Inlet is inexpensive and where the locals eat, according to our mate. Also try Waterman's (757/428-3644) for good seafood and good prices. The Jewish Mother (757/422-5430) offers deli fare, designer beers and live music at night. The museum's Osprey Cafe offers kid-friendly fare.
Where to Whale Watch: The Virginia Marine Science Museum offers two-hour whale-watching cruises at 3:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays and on weekends throughout the day through this Sunday (beyond March 7, call first; it depends on the whales). Call 757/437-BOAT for reservations. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for children ages 4 to 11. Interpreters aboard the boat also have whale artifacts, such as a piece of baleen and a whale vertabra, on hand to examine. From June 21 through Sept. 5, the museum's boat rides take passengers to see dolphins (which are technically toothed whales). Dolphin-watch trips are $12 ($10 children).
For More Information: Virginia Beach tourism, 757/437-4888 or 800/446-8038, www.vabeach.com.
Getaway tips? Good trips? Send a note to email@example.com. For 75 more getaway ideas, check out Escape Plans, now available at bookstores and area Giants.
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