“Whale, ho!” Whale-watching in Virginia Beach, VA

When I went to Seattle several years ago, it was a no-brainer that whale watching was on the to-do list. Who doesn’t know that there are orcas off the West Coast?!

And yet, somehow, even as a whale lover, a lifetime resident of the East Coast, and a 17-year resident of Virginia, I somehow missed the fact that the waters just outside the Chesapeake Bay play host to pods of humpback whales every winter. (Maybe if I’d gone to elementary school here, I would’ve known? Eh?)

Luke and I intended to try to catch a glimpse of these sometime-residents last year but, as is a typical winter hazard, nasty weather prompted us to cancel at the last minute.

So, here we are, a year later, finally ready to come face-to-face with as many tons of humpback beauty as we could find.

 

The Tour

Rudee Tours, based in Virginia Beach, doesn’t require advance bookings, but they recommend you arrive to buy tickets and get settled about 30 minutes in advance. So, we showed up at about 10:40 for an 11am cruise. The boat was already pretty packed – no outdoor seating left at all – so after getting our souvenir picture taken, we found standing room near the prow to wait to get underway.

Let me start by confirming any suspicions you may have: chugging along on a decent-sized craft, out on the open water, at the end of January is COLD. And, if you happen to be on the shore side of the boat, WINDY as all hell.

It’s also kind of amazing to see the oceanfront from another angle. As someone who has always been more summer beach goer than winter boater, it had a blast snapping shots of the shore from what felt like a completely deserted, alien perspective. Our first mate also came over the loudspeaker a few times to tell us about a few passing landmarks, like the Cape Henry Lighthouse and The Cavalier Hotel.

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The Whales

After about 20 minutes of windburn and sheltering my non-weather sealed camera from spray, the mate announced that we were in the area where the season’s previous sightings had occurred. About 5 minutes after that, she announced seeing the first blow in the distance – a sign that a humpback was surfacing to breathe before diving again.

Now, if you think seeing some whale snot way far out on the water isn’t exciting, you’re hopelessly wrong. We all flocked immediately to the railings – windburn be damned! – and waited with bated breath for our first guest to appear. Then, as we were staring overboard, the captain announced he needed to cut engines – there were multiple blows around us AND a container ship passing, so we needed to hang tight for a few.

Guys. If you get even the littlest bit seasick, please take Dramamine before you venture out. Most of the ride was pretty steady, but when they cut engines, the boat has no choice but to ride some very, very choppy water. I don’t get motion sick, but I am a devoted land-lubber who has no sea legs, so the dramatic rocking was a little disconcerting, at best.

The whales near us moved off, as did the container ship, so we continued on our way. A few blows later found us all continuing to watch and pray for some tail action…. And then, suddenly, the mate come over the loud speaker sounding incredibly excited. “Oh my gosh, guys! We’ve just had a full breach off the port side! Who saw it?!” …the mate did, and that was about it.

It was a little disappointing, but it certainly didn’t taint the rest of the trip. Let me assure you – if you’re even a little excited about seeing whales, you get over little disappointments really fast!

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The return trip

The rest of the trip was full of whale tails, Arctic terns, seagulls, and watching a nearby fishing boat look like it was about to turn over in the choppy seas. On the trip back, one of the volunteers on the ship broke out some baleen and a whale figuring and walked around educating folks about the part whales like these play in the ocean ecosystem.

Finally, we made our way back to Rudee Inlet (conspicuously in the cabin this time!) and wrapped up a real whale of a trip.

Bonus!

Being out in the cold for hours stirs up a hell of a craving for warm food. So, we stopped by Citrus, a breakfast/lunch restaurant about 15 minutes away, for some hearty brunch food. Luke wasn’t crazy about their traditional Benedict, but I couldn’t complain about their healthy breakfast options, despite having my diet limited by a gluten intolerance.

Finally, we decided to make the most of our day by stopping at Williamsburg Premium Outlets on the way home. Because who doesn’t want to stretch their legs (and their wallet) on a full stomach??

And that, my friends, was our frigid, fabulous morning on the whale road!

 

Thoughts on gear

Bring a hat, gloves, wind-resistant shell, and a hair tie. I wore my Patagonia Nano-Puff jacket and was nice and toasty on top. Definitely regretted accidentally leaving my beanie at home, though…

If you want to take pictures, I recommend bringing a camera with a solid continuous autofocus setting and a decently long lens. Since this was a casual trip, I brought my Sony a6000, fitted with my 50-210mm zoom lens and was very happy with it. As a photographer, perhaps the biggest obstacle I faced was the unpredictability of where the whales would surface. Sure, I might’ve trained my focus on where I saw the most recent blow, but that definitely didn’t mean they’d surface just there again.

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