"Our ocean is the economic backbone of our coastal communities, but a mounting challenge we face is how to balance all these activities with the needs of nature." —Tom McCann
By Tom McCann
I hit the road early, ahead of the Washington, D.C., commuter traffic, and headed for the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. My plan was to catch up with Andy Thompson, outdoors writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and spend a couple of hours on the ocean whale watching.
With abundant food closer to shore than in past years, the whales were spending more time just off the coast, so our odds were good of seeing a few humpback, fin or sei whales. I was hoping we might even be lucky enough to see a highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Watching the Whales
For nearly two hours, we followed the Northern gannets. Diving into the water, searching for the same food sources as the whales, the birds led us right to them.
Two humpbacks, surfacing just long enough for a couple of pictures, arched their backs and sprayed water high into the air. The scene then played out again and again as our boat maneuvered around them at a safe distance.
As a second whale-watching boat joined us, I noticed in the near distance three large ships, one military and two cargo vessels. This is a common sight given the nearby Naval Station Norfolk and bustling port.
As our boat made its way back to the dock, Andy and I talked about the whales, commercial and recreational activities on the water, and the importance of a healthy ocean to coastal communities. We also discussed threats to whales in U.S. waters, including entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes.
As the sun dipped on a cold mid-February afternoon, passengers filed off the boat and we said our goodbyes.
Two Sides to the Tale
Andy’s story ran soon after our trip, celebrating the ocean and highlighting the amazing wildlife all Virginians share. But a dark cloud also blew across those news wires.
A juvenile male fin whale washed up just a few miles away in Norfolk with a gash across his head. A necropsy would determine the precise cause of death, but the size of the wound, along with the surrounding paint or rust, indicated a vessel strike.
Our ocean is getting more and more crowded. Increased shipping, fishing and recreation—along with proposed offshore wind turbines and other commercial activities—are all competing for space. Our ocean is the economic backbone of our coastal communities, but a mounting challenge we face is how to balance all these activities with the needs of nature.
Better planning tools such as the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal (MARCO) have the potential to improve how we care for our oceans. That planning includes where we locate activities like shipping lanes.
These efforts carry a new urgency for me now.
Passport to Nature
You’re invited to travel along as we explore our region's top nature destinations and conservation stories. Discover these special places and meet the people who are protecting and restoring nature.