The whale seen feeding in recent days near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge seems to have a few companions.
Crewmen on the Elsam Jylland, a Danish-flagged commercial ship steaming south with a load of coal, spotted at least two large whales about 7 a.m. yesterday off Poplar Island. About five hours later, the crew of an unidentified commercial vessel saw a large whale near Thomas Point Light.
"They seem to be active and we think, therefore, healthy," Barbara MacLeod, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said after the sightings were reported to the agency. "We're not sure why they are here."
Poplar Island, northwest of Tilghman Island, is about 10 miles south of the Bay Bridge. Thomas Point Light -- where crewmen on another commercial vessel also spotted a whale about 1:30 p.m. Saturday -- is about seven miles south of the bridge.
Whales are rarely seen anywhere in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay.
One apparently healthy, 35-foot humpback whale was spotted feeding a week ago near the bridge. The animal 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.
Ms. MacLeod said crewmen on the Elsam Jylland also spotted a single large whale at Bloody Point, about five miles south of the bridge,at midday Saturday as the ship was northbound in the bay.
All whales are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and other federal laws. Natural resources officials say they want to make sure that boaters don't get so excited about the whales they end up harassing them -- an offense punishable by fines of up to $10,000.
"I don't think we want to start whale-watching expeditions off the Annapolis dock," said Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a DNR veterinarian. "I hope they find their way back down the bay."
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. Driscoll 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.
Mark Swingle, assistant curator at the Virginia museum, said last week that he and his colleagues believed that 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.