Brainwaves at the Beach
—Marine Mammals —
More than 30 marine mammal species come to feed in Virginia's food-rich waters. All are migratory, and when and where you see them depend on the species. Bottlenose dolphins and manatees are summer visitors often seen close to the beach while pilot whales and Risso's dolphins live offshore near the Gulf Stream. Baleen whales, harbor porpoises, and seals show up in winter from cooler regions to the north.
Know your neighbors
Coastal bottlenose dolphins are Virginia's most common marine mammal, with hundreds of individuals appearing in local waters from May to October. While here, they give birth to calves and feed on fish such as spot, croaker, and menhaden. Look for mother-calf pairs, energetic, juveniles frocking in the surf, and tight-knit groups encircling schools of fish off the beach.
In winter, watch for the blows from humpback and fin whales feeding close to shore on bay anchovies and other small fish. Also look for harbor seals hauled out of the water to rest on local beaches, docks, and rock jetties.
Dolphin or Porpoise?
Dolphins and porpoises are both small toothed whales, but belong to different families and have different characteristics. For example, dolphins are larger and have distinctive snouts with cone-shaped teeth, while porpoises are smaller
and have rounded heads with flat teeth. The lively animals seen close to shore in summer are bottlenose dolphins, while harbor porpoises, a more reclusive species, visit in winter.
Ice Seals in Virginia Beach?
Harp and hooded seals, species that live on ice in northern areas, sometimes stray south to Virginia in winter. However, if you see a seal in Virginia Beach it's most likely a harbor seal, a species that typically inhabits the rocky New England coast. In 2003, the Virginia Aquarium began to care for sick and injures seals that strand here. Some have been released with satellite transmitters that allow researchers to monitor their return to cooler northern waters.
Why Whales in Winter?
The large whales seen here in winter are baleen whales, species that strain food from the water with filtering baleen plates. Virginia Aquarium scientists believe some humpback and fin whales that are not breeding follow schools of fish to local waters, where food is more abundant than in the Caribbean breeding grounds.
Harbor Seal · Right Whale · Bottlenose Dolphin · Manatee · Risso's Dolphin · Bottlenose Dolphin · Fin Whale · Harbor Seals · Humpback Whale
Bottlenose Dolphin · Harbor Porpoise
Rehabilitated harp seal with stylite transmitter
Humpback Whale feeding
tracking map for harp seal rehabilitated by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program Data courtesy of WhaleNet.