Best time to travel to Virginia

Whale Watching in Virginia Beach

The favorite winter entertainment for nature lovers

Best time: December–March

Whale Watching in Virginia Beach
Whale Watching in Virginia Beach

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.

Whale-watching cruises

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.

Whale-watching season

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%.

Humpback whales

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

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

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.”

Whale-watching tips

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.

Practical info

When is the best time for whale watching in Virginia Beach?

To catch sight of whales in Virginia Beach, the most ideal months are January and February, but it is possible to see them in late December or March. Prior to booking a reservation, you can check with the local Virginia Aquarium or Rudee Tours to inquire about any recent whale sightings. Typically, the odds of spotting whales and dolphins in Virginia Beach are as high as 90%. Show more

Where are the best locations for whale watching in Virginia Beach?

Virginia Beach offers various whale watching locations that vary based on where the whales appear. In general, humpback and fin whales can be spotted near Cape Henry and up to 25 miles out to sea. However, Rudee Inlet is the top spot. The nutrient-dense water at Rudee Inlet provides excellent habitat for a variety of marine creatures and sea mammals. It's one of the only East Coast locations where whales and dolphins can be seen up close to the shore. Show more

What types of whales can be seen in Virginia Beach?

The majority of whales that swim off the Virginia Beach coast are humpback and fin whales. Humpbacks are known for playful behavior such as slap-flippering and breaching, and are the most abundant species in the area. In addition, fin whales, the 2nd largest species of whale, are often sighted. Northern right whales heading south towards their winter habitats in Florida are frequently seen, while minke whales sightings are infrequent. Show more

What should I bring for a whale watching tour in Virginia Beach?

If taking a whale watching tour, you should bring binoculars and a camera with a powerful zoom. For sunny days, sunglasses will be essential. You won't need to bring food and water since most boats will have galleys and bars onboard. It's advisable to take cash since not all of them accept credit cards. It's important to wear warm, layered clothing, gloves and hats, sturdy shoes with rubber soles, a jacket with a hood will keep you comfortable and dry in rainy conditions. Bring seasickness medication if you're prone to motion sickness. Show more

Where can I stay for my whale watching trip in Virginia Beach?

Many excellent hotels in Virginia Beach are available, with discounts regularly offered during the winter season. The Cavalier Virginia, Hyatt House Virginia Beach Oceanfront, and Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront, are a few beachfront accommodations to consider. Additionally, you may explore cottages, bed and breakfasts or resorts. It's best to reserve your stay in advance of traveling. Show more

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Last updated: by Olha Savych