- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Some people enjoy bird-watching, but Stephanie Bappert likes to look for whales.

Mrs. Bappert, 31, of Farmville, Va., recently took part in the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Whale Watching Adventure in Virginia Beach. The two-hour boat ride takes guests one to five miles from the shore in search of the magnificent creatures.

“Anything that’s a deep-ocean animal has its mystique,” Mrs. Bappert says. “Since we’re land mammals, they’re so intriguing.”

Whales can be seen migrating along the East Coast during winter months, and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center runs boat trips until March 13. The Virginia Aquarium 3-D Imax Theater also plays the movie “Whales” through the same date. The events raise awareness about some of the biggest animals ever to exist on Earth. The center is running a new exhibit called “Whale World” until April 17.

Humpback and fin whales are the species most likely to be spotted off the coast of Virginia Beach during the winter, says Julia Clark, boat trip coordinator at the science center. Both whales sing, which is thought to be a type of communication used for mating. Their voices can carry more than 100 miles.

These two creatures are called baleen whales, meaning they use a special feeding structure inside their mouths called baleen to strain food, usually plankton, fish and shrimp, from the water. Right, gray, sei, minke, Bryde’s, pygmy, blue and bowhead are other types of baleen whales. Because they don’t have teeth, they are called mysticetes.

In the Virginia Beach area, baleen whales usually find bay anchovies and menhaden to eat, Mrs. Clark says. In fact, adult humpback whales eat 1 tons of food each day. Adult fin whales can grow to be 80 feet long. Blue whales, which are the largest creatures ever to live on Earth, are the only whales bigger than fin whales.

“We do believe that it is the food source we have here that brings the whales to the area,” Mrs. Clark says. “The Gulf of Maine is their feeding ground. They pass down to the Caribbean for breeding. Some of the juveniles and young adults that aren’t interested in mating yet, they might stay around Virginia Beach and feed.”

Because birds often seek out the same fish whales eat, Mrs. Clark instructs her whale-watching guests to look for large gatherings of birds feeding from the water. There just might be whales eating there, too.

Whale watchers also look for the vapor from the whales’ blowholes or for their backs to break the surface of the water, Mrs. Clark says.

North Atlantic right whales, among most endangered whales in the world, sometimes are spotted along the Virginia Beach shoreline, says Mason Weinrich, chief scientist at the Whale Center of New England in Gloucester, Mass. He also is vice president of the American Cetacean Society, based in San Pedro, Calif.

The North Atlantic right whale population is declining at about 1 percent per year. Four North Atlantic right whales, including a pregnant one, have been found dead in the past few months, Mr. Weinrich says.

“It’s alarming,” he says. “If you had four die every week, we’d lose the population very quickly. Is this more than in the past? I don’t know. I’m not sure you can clearly state that more than this have died in this period than before, but it is more than we’ve found.”

About 350 North Atlantic right whales are left, says Beth Pike, assistant scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston. She curates the photograph identification catalog for this type of whale. The organization has photographs of more than 420 North Atlantic right whales. The hardened patches of skin on their foreheads, called callosities, are used to identify the whales.

Although it’s illegal to get within 500 meters (about .3 miles) of a North Atlantic right whale without a special permit, the creatures still face ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, she says.

Many whales also perish after beaching themselves. A group of more than 30 pilot whales beached on the shores of North Carolina earlier this month, and about half of them died.

“Whales are pretty awe-inspiring,” Ms. Pike says. “I like going out on boats to find them. I like that you can’t have them in captivity. You have to go find them.”

Unless people are with a professional whale-watching trip, they shouldn’t approach whales or dolphins, says David Schofield, manager of ocean health programs at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

“You can become injured by them,” Mr. Schofield says. “They may be protecting young. You have the potential to affect the animal. You may cause propeller wounds on whales. You don’t want to be the one to cause the animal’s demise.”

When whales are found dead, members of the Northeast Region Stranding Network, from Maine to Virginia, of which the National Aquarium is a part, recover the carcasses, he says. The animals usually are taken for necropsies to determine the cause of death. Natural causes, such as diseases and infections, could cause death. However, traumatic injuries usually are related to human impact.

“The most famous story we have at the aquarium is Inky,” Mr. Schofield says. “A pygmy sperm whale had swallowed a trash bag, cigarette wrapper and a Mylar balloon. The intestines were suffocated, and it wasn’t able to pass materials. It stranded, and we were able to remove the materials and put her back in the wild.”

People have a tendency to forget about the whales swimming in the ocean, says Heather Medic, stranding coordinator at the Mystic Aquarium and the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn. Ironically, the blue whale’s heart is bigger than a small car, and a child could crawl through its arteries.

“We do have whales in our water,” Mrs. Medic says. “We do have coastlines, and they do migrate. Because they migrate, they go through a lot of states. Since there are great whale watches in Maine and Massachusetts, people don’t realize the whales go through Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Virginia. Some end up in Florida and Georgia. Some go to the Dominican Republic. There is definitely a chance for seeing a whale.”

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