The number of large whales swimming south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has at least doubled, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources said today.
One apparently healthy, 35-foot humpback whale was spotted feeding a week ago near the bridge. The animal also was seen again Tuesday, but rough waters in the bay later in the week probably made it hard to see the whale on subsequent days.
Barbara MacLeod, the DNR spokeswoman, said crewmen on vessel Elsam Jyland spotted at least two large whales about 7 a.m. today off Poplar Island, about 10 miles south of the bridge. Crew members on the vessel, which was heading south, also had seen one whale at nearby Bloody Point about midday Saturday as the ship was northbound in the Bay.
Crewmen on the vessel Excelsior also spotted a whale at Thomas Point Light, about seven miles south of the bridge, at about 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Ms. MacLeod said.
"They seem to be active and we think, therefore, healthy," she said. "We're not sure why they are here." Large whales are rarely seen anywhere in Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay.
All whales are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and other federal laws. DNR officials say they want to make sure that boaters don't get so excited about the whales they end up harassing them, which is punishable by fines of up to $10,000.
After the one humpback was spotted last week, marine biologists learned that at least eight whales of the same species had been seen for several months at the mouth of the bay and off Virginia Beach, Va.
The whales off Virginia have been photographed extensively. Humpbacks have distinctive tail markings and other markings that enable scientists to track individuals.
Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a DNR veterinarian, is working with Virginia scientists to try to determine whether some of the whales off Virginia may have strayed into the Maryland portion of the Bay, possibly in search of food.
Dr. Driscoll, Maryland coordinator for a nationwide marine mammal stranding network, said she was sending photographs of the whale spotted last week near the bridge to the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach. Scientists there have been tracking the group of humpbacks.
For years, scientists studying whales in waters off Cape Cod and elsewhere in New England have photographed humpbacks and named them. Extensive photographic catalogs of the animals have enabled scientists to follow individuals year after year.
Mark Swingle, assistant curator at the Virginia museum, said last week that he and his colleagues believe the humpbacks off Virginia, which have appeared the past three winters, are part of an Atlantic stock that migrates in spring to New England waters and farther north.