Marine biologists in Virginia, after a bit of detective work, have concluded that the humpback whale spotted near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in recent days was the same one spotted Jan. 25 at the mouth of the bay.
Thomas D. Pitchford, a biologist with the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach, said yesterday that video footage of the whale near the bridge was compared to similar videos taken of a group of humpbacks in the Atlantic off Virginia Beach. A circular white marking on the dorsal fin of one of the whales off Virginia was found on the 35-foot humpback photographed near the bridge March 9, he says.
Humpbacks have distinctive markings on their flukes and dorsal fins, and scientists in New England have compiled extensive photographic records of the animals in waters off Cape Cod. The photographs allow researchers to keep track of the whales from year to year.
The whale seen swimming near the bridge and south to the Tilghman Island area has been named "Bull's-Eye" by officials from the Virginia museum. It is one of at least eight 1-to-3-year-old humpbacks that have been at the mouth of the bay and off the Virginia Beach shoreline for several months.
"If it's the same whale, it's good natural-history information," says Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a veterinarian at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. She met Wednesday with officials from the Virginia museum to review the video footage.
Dr. Driscoll says the whale near the bridge "appeared" to be "Bull's-Eye," but she couldn't be 100 percent certain because she has limited experience with whales.
"It's exciting that [whales] are in the bay at all. If we're able to document their movements, it's even more exciting," she says.
Sightings of the whale in the bay have been reported as late as Wednesday. The crew of a commercial ship reported seeing two or more whales off Tilghman Island on Monday.
It's possible that more than one whale has been swimming in the upper bay, Mr. Pitchford says. Three whales were reported to be near the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Virginia several weeks ago.
And the detective work is not finished, Dr. Driscoll and Mr. Pitchford say.
They say they plan to consult with researchers in Massachusetts to see if "Bull's-Eye" or other whales from Virginia have been photographed in the waters off Cape Cod, a prime humpback feeding area in the summer.
Another humpback spotted regularly in Virginia has been named "No Fin" because it has no dorsal fin, and another is called "Tattertail" because its tail appears to have been cut by a boat propeller.