Winter in Virginia Beach is too cold for people to enjoy the ocean waves, but it perfectly suits the whales that migrate south from icy Canadian waters. Humpback and fin whales take a break in Virginia Beach’s Chesapeake Bay on their way to the Caribbean. Occasionally, you can also see minke whales, and rare Northern right whales as well as harbor porpoises and harbor seals.
Best places for whale watching
Whales can be seen just off the shore, near Cape Henry, as well as about 40 km (25 mi) out into the ocean. The nutritious waters of the Rudee Inlet attract a lot of marine life and especially sea mammals. Therefore the Rudee Inlet is not just the best whale-watching location in Virginia Beach, but also a unique spot for the whole East Coast where you can see whales and dolphins so close to shore.
Virginia Beach has two major whale-watching cruise operators. Rudee’s Winter Wildlife Whale-Watching Cruises provide an educational tour to spot whales, dolphins, seals, turtles, and sea birds. Whale and dolphin sightings are almost guaranteed from December to February, and if you don't see a whale you can repeat a tour until you do. The company operates multiple vessels with galleys, restrooms as well as outdoor and heated indoor seating. An alternative tour is by Virginia Aquarium. Their vessel Atlantic Explorer features a heated cabin, restrooms, and snack bar with food and drinks available for purchase. Whale sightings are not guaranteed. Whale-watching tours in Virginia beach last for about 2-2.5 hours. Tickets cost about $30 for an adult.
Whales start to appear off Virginia's coast as early as December, and they head back north in late March. However, every year is different because whales migrate based on temperatures, not on the calendar. As cold temperatures descend on Virginia Beach, it's time to book a whale-watching expedition. Before making a reservation, you can call Virginia Aquarium or Rudee Tours and ask if whales have been spotted yet. The prime months for sightings are typically January and February, however, during some years whales have been spotted in large numbers in December. Generally, the success rate of spotting whales and dolphins in Virginia Beach is about 90%.
Humpbacks that like to spend their summers in the Gulf of Maine are known for their playful behavior, like breaching and flipper slapping. They are the most abundant whale species in Virginia waters and often swim along with a whale watch boat. Humpbacks communicate through melodious calls that can be called "songs." These "songs" last up to 20 minutes. Being up to 55 ft (16 m) in length, humpbacks have flukes unique to each individual.
Fin whales, the second largest of all whale species, can be also spotted off Virginia Beach coast. You won't confuse them with another species due to a strange asymmetrical coloring. Their lower right side is almost white while the lower left side is almost black. With a length of 85 ft (25 m), they nevertheless can develop an amazing speed up to 23 miles per hour (37 km/hour). With a lifespan of about 90 years, fin whales are often spotted in groups of two or more.
North Atlantic right whales
One of the world's most endangered sea mammals, the northern right whale is the only whale species that has callosities on its head. Callosities are white patches of roughened skin and they help to identify a right whale. Right whales also have no dorsal fin. These large sea mammals that reach 52 feet (16 m) in length are quite slow swimmers which help to spot them in the ocean. In recent years, northern right whales have been spotted on many occasions off the Virginia Beach coast as they were heading to their wintering sites in Florida.
Minke whales are often seen during whale-watching excursions in Virginia Beach. They belong to smaller whale species, reaching 30 ft (9 m) in length. Minke are usually spotted during rough sea and choppy waves weather. They are identified by two white stripes on their pectoral fins called “Minke mittens.”
Weather is the biggest problem for winter sea excursions in Virginia Beach. Whale watching trips can get canceled due to a storm or unsafe conditions on the water. Also, choppy waters make it harder to spot whales from afar. Fog is not going to help either. It's best to pick a day with clear weather and more or less calm sea conditions for your trip to maximize your chances of spotting whales. In the mornings, there are usually fewer waves than in the evenings.
What to take
There's no need to pack food and water since most vessels have galleys and bars. Bring some cash since they don't always accept credit cards. Binoculars and a camera with a powerful zoom will surely come in handy. Sunglasses will be needed on a sunny day. If you get seasick, take your medicine before departure.
What to wear
Winter sea excursions certainly require some warm layers and a good jacket with a hood. You want to be protected from cold, wind, and rain. Shoes have to be on rubber soles for better traction. Also, it's a good idea to take a hat and gloves.
Where to stay
Virginia Beach boasts a multitude of excellent hotels, and the good news is: there will be major discounts for the winter season. Check out some beachfront accommodations below.
When can you see whales in Virginia Beach?
Whales start to appear off Virginia's coast as early as December, and they head back north in late March
Are there killer whales in Virginia Beach?
Killer whales are not common in Virginia Beach. They usually stick to colder water and can be spotted in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
What kind of whales are in Virginia Beach?
Humpback, minke, and fin whales are the most common in Virginia