Virginia Aquarium Sea Adventures: Follow the whale breath

Whale breath. It envelops you and it stinks, but that’s the best sign a whale is near.

Jimmy Crisher is an expert whale spotter. As boat captain for the Virginia Aquarium Sea Adventures, he has more than 30 years of experience maneuvering his vessel, corresponding with staff, and keeping a sharp eye out for whales in action.

“After doing this for so long you get pretty good at finding them,” he said. “Look for the footprint. That’s where they breach.”

The footprint. It’s another sure sign of a whale that occurs on the surface of the ocean after the downward stroke of its tail.

On Wednesday, whale footprints were everywhere. It was an active day for humpback whales with eight estimated afternoon sightings.

Whale watching trips have been offered by the Virginia Aquarium since 1989, becoming a long-standing tradition for families and tourists enjoying the Virginia Beach seaside.

Two and a half hours, $28, and a little bit of luck are all that’s needed to secure a glimpse of a whale.

No two excursions are ever alike, but it’s not unlikely to see the same whales passing through year after year during seasonal migrations, according to Crisher.

“Today, we’re looking for two particular whales that we’ve catalogued – number seven and number 259,” Crisher said. “We’ve been watching them for the past couple of years, but this year, for whatever reason, they are inseparable. They’re like Siamese twins.”

It’s an interesting phenomenon since humpback whales are largely solitary animals, Virginia Aquarium educator Katie Laikos said.

“Usually they travel alone, but they’re very smart and they do a lot of cooperative feeding,” Laikos said. “Two or three whales will do something called bubble-netting, which basically traps the fish.”

According to Laikos, humpbacks begin traveling from cooler northern regions around Canada, Greenland, and Iceland in mid-fall, passing through Virginia Beach as they make their way south toward the Dominican Republic.

The yearly migrations make for a treasure trove of whale sightings through the winter months.

“There isn’t a day this year that we haven’t seen any whales,” said Crisher as he knocked on the wooden counter. “Every time you think you’ve seen it all, you see something different.”

Crisher hasn’t seen it all, but he’s had some closer encounters to whales than most people.

“About ten years ago, I was on a pilot boat with a deckhand that had never seen a whale. I’d seen one breach, so we went out on deck to watch,” he said. “The whale came so close to the boat that we could see his eyes. After he dove back down, we walked back up to the cabin, and the whale breached again and splashed so hard that he got us soaking wet. I thought he was going to land on us.”

The whale from Crisher’s story did something called spyhopping, which is where whales rise vertically out of the water, boat program coordinator Alexis Rabon said.

“Some theorize the behavior is in an effort to get a better view above the water line,” she said. “If that’s true, then these curious animals may be recognizing that we’re there, and saying hello.”

Spyhopping is less common than other forms of breach, but any surfacing is important to onsite data collectors, who snapshot the whales for photo-identification purposes.

Since 1990, the Virginia Aquarium has curated information on more than 250 humpbacks whales.

According to Rabon, some of the whales spotted off of the Virginia coast have been sighted elsewhere along the Mid-Atlantic, the Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Bermuda, and the Dominican Republic.

“Photo-identification tells us the distribution, seasonality, and migration routes of the animals coming through,” Rabon said. “That information can help with us make decisions on vessel speeds entering the area, whale-human interaction issues, and contributes to federal and regional management of marine mammal populations and environmental assessments.”

Whale watching sea excursions will be offered through Mar. 5, 2017.

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com

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