Whale of a Time

Virginia Beach: The elusive humpbacks that spend winters here add to the coastal resort's many off-season charms.

January 21, 2001|By Sarah Clayton | By Sarah Clayton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was bitter cold, but the Bobbi Lee, rocking gently on the outgoing tide, was steadily filling with people. Old people, young people, one in a wheelchair, another in a ski suit, a family from South America, a family from North Carolina, three local girls, my husband, my 5-year-old son and me. Some 40 of us in all.

It was Jan. 3, the first day of whale-watching off Virginia Beach. And it was cold -- below freezing. With a nasty wind-chill factor, the temperature would drop even lower before we returned three hours later.

Last year, I was told, it was 74 degrees on the same date. Last year, there was an 80 percent chance of seeing the fin and humpback whales that mysteriously began to winter here offshore some 10 years ago. But that was last year.

This year we knew only two things: It was cold, and whales had already been spotted. But that wasn't to say we would see them. Even the brochure advertising the whale watching absolved itself, saying there was no guarantee.

Whales, the largest of all creatures ever to inhabit the Earth, are also most elusive, and I'd come to Virginia Beach hoping to see one. Whale-watching packages are offered by many hotels here, and include one or two nights of accommodation, a whale-watching cruise, admission to the Virginia Marine Science Museum and other attractions.

But in the 2 1/2 days I was here, I discovered that Virginia Beach has more than whales to recommend it in the winter. There are nature preserves to explore, historic homes to visit, and a tranquillity you could never experience during the summer beach season.

One of the perks for us was staying in a fancy beachfront hotel that we'd never be able to afford in the summer -- $89.95 vs. $279 for a room with a deck and an uninterrupted view of the ocean.

In the morning, I'd sit with a cup of coffee and watch the pale blues and pinks of dawn steal across the sea and light up a lone cyclist or jogger padding along the boardwalk, originally built in 1888 but recently given a $103 million face lift, making it 28 feet wide for its 3-mile length, and adding lanes specifically for biking and walking.

When my husband, son and I walked on the beach, we mostly had it to ourselves, and the sound of the surf tumbling onto the sand was audible, something it rarely is over the din of the million and a half people who visit the beach each summer. Another million visit between Labor Day and Memorial Day.

Virginia Beach in the winter is a soothing place, where one need not make reservations at restaurants or wait in lines.

Leviathans' travels

It was late afternoon as we motored out of Rudee Inlet, just south of the main resort area. The boat was abuzz with excited chatter -- surely we'd see at least a humpback, one of the most acrobatic whales. Would it breach, flinging its 30- to 50-foot body into the air before crashing dramatically back into the sea? Would we see that classic sight of a fluke momentarily suspended -- like a grand pause in an opera -- before following the rest of the great body down into the depths?

Out on the open ocean, we all settled into a suspenseful quiet, bodies leaning against the ship's railings, eyes scanning the horizon for the tell-tale spouts from the whale's exhalations, every rolling wave taking on the contours of the leviathans we sought. Binoculars came to eyes, were handed around.

An hour later the cold began to take its toll, and in shifts we filtered into the boat's warm cabin for a cup of hot chocolate and a general thawing out. But soon we took up our posts again.

"I just think it would be so neat to see a whale," said one of the local girls. "I mean, you don't think of them being here."

Nor did anyone else until 10 years ago, when the first whales began appearing close to shore. At first it was thought they were juveniles left behind to feed at the food-rich mouth of the Chesapeake Bay while the mature whales went to the warm waters off the Dominican Republic to mate and calve before beginning the long swim back to the coasts of Maine and Newfoundland.

But further study through the Virginia Marine Science Museum, in Virginia Beach, has concluded that mature whales are with the juveniles. Are they females who perhaps lost a baby and weren't ready to mate again? Are they spurned males, unlucky in love, who didn't have a female to travel south with? And why did they show up here in the first place?

That last question is causing the scientists at the museum a lot of head-scratching.

"It might be that the whale population has increased and there's just too many for the offshore food supply," says Susan Barco, a research scientist who's been with the museum since its inception in 1986. "So they've come in closer to feed."

Fred Feller, a fisherman and captain of the Bobbi Lee, agrees, saying he's seen whales in the area since he was a boy but, until recently, only farther out.

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