Each winter, from late December to mid-March, humpbacks, minkes, fin whales, and other cetacean species can be spotted in Virginia Beach as they make their annual migration south for breeding. Anyone visiting during the migratory season would be remiss not to search for one rolling along the surface of the water, or—the ultimate scene—breaching, and the best way to witness such a thing is by boat tour. Two longstanding Virginia Beach institutions, the Virginia Aquarium and Rudee Tours, offer whale watching outings. Both maintain that the likelihood of sightings is high throughout the winter; however, they're unpredictable and can vary from year to year depending on weather patterns.
Winter Wildlife Boat Trips
The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center offers two- to two-and-a-half-hour, education-based wildlife-spotting boat trips from late November or December to early March. On the tour, educators from the aquarium help guests spot harbor seals, porpoises, and whales, as well as brown pelicans, northern gannets, double-crested cormorants, and other sea birds feeding on fish. You'll learn the differences between these ocean-loving animals, their migration habits, conservation efforts surrounding them, and more.
The aquarium's Atlantic Explorer—featuring a heated cabin, bathrooms, and snack bar—will depart at either 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. (sometimes both) almost daily, weather permitting, from December 17, 2020, to March 7, 2021. It costs $31.95 for adults, $26.95 for kids, and infants under 3 can board for free. Discounts are offered for members.
Another beloved tour provider in the area, Rudee Tours will begin its whale watching outings on December 19, 2020. It's the only tour in the region that offers a "sighting guarantee," meaning guests can go for a second outing for free if no wildlife is spotted on the first ride. Whereas the Virginia Aquarium tour departs from the aquarium dock, Rudee Tours' launch only a few hundred yards from the ocean. The tour group also claims to have the largest fleet in town.
Like the Virginia Aquarium, Rudee Tours focuses on education and conservation—sightings on each trip are even recorded for research. They last for two hours and are offered for $30 per adult or $25 per kid (and again, kids under 3 ride for free) at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. daily.
What You Might See on a Boat Trip
A number of marine creatures spend the winters migrating south along the East Coast to hunt for food, reproduce, and raise their young in warmer climates. Among the species of whales and wildlife you may encounter on a boat trip are humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, and fin whales, all common. If you're extra lucky, you may also spot minke whales, harbor porpoises, harbor seals, or the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The majestic humpback whale migrates from the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canada, and goes as far south as the Caribbean. Known for their complex and lengthy whale songs, graceful athleticism, unusual bubble net feeding techniques, and immense size, humpback whales are among the most fascinating and thrilling whales to observe. They're known to breach and slap their fins on the water.
Speaking of fins, the fin whale is also a common sight. These are second in size only to the blue whale, making them the second largest animal on earth. Long and streamlined, fin whales are known for their great speed capabilities and powerful, low-pitched sounds. The fin whale is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) as a vulnerable species.
The Chances of Spotting a Whale
The number of annual migratory whales in the Atlantic waters near Virginia Beach is a topic of ongoing research, undergoing regular aerial surveys. It remains unclear how many whales make the 1,000-mile migration every winter, but research has showed that it fluctuates with weather patterns. Because the migrating whales move freely in their natural ocean habitat, the likelihood of seeing whales during a winter visit to Virginia Beach varies from year to year, ranging from 40 to 90 percent sighting success rates in the past.
Tips for Winter Whale Watching
Many hop aboard a whale watching boat trip with high expectations and very little preparation. Know how to make your excursion worthwhile—whale sighting or not.
- Before arriving at the dock, confirm your boat trip details. In some cases, outings may be canceled because of weather conditions.
- Remember that winter weather conditions along the coast are frequently windy with slightly colder temperatures out on the water. Wear warm clothing, including a waterproof jacket in case of rain, hats, gloves, and scarves.
- Wear non-skid shoes and warm socks.
- Remember to pack your camera and binoculars.
- Take a pair of sunglasses—the water can be bright when it's sunny.
- If you get seasick, get some fresh air and watch the waves as they approach the boat or try lying down. You can take antiemetic drugs before your trip or chew ginger candies, too.
- If you miss the whale-watching season, the Virginia Aquarium also offers a number of other boat adventures throughout the year, including a dolphin tour March through May and regular stargazing excursions.