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Passport to Nature

A Crowded Ocean

"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

On a recent Friday I hit the road early, ahead of the Washington, D.C., commuter traffic, heading down to Virginia Beach and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. 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.

Around this time of year, right whales are often migrating up from warmer waters off the southern states to Maine waters. With only a few hundred of these whales left, though, I knew a sighting was a long shot.

The aquarium’s boat was nearly sold out with a combination of locals and families on vacation, many with impressive cameras looking for that one great shot. Crew member Janet Schroeder told us that this is the best whale-watching season since 1995. So our excitement grew.

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 this past Sunday, celebrating the ocean and highlighting the amazing wildlife all Virginians share. But a dark cloud also blew across the news wires that afternoon.

A juvenile male fin whale washed up just a few miles away in Norfolk with a gash across his head. A necropsy will 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.

Last spring, Jay Odell, director of the Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Seascape Program, wrote about the potential of better planning tools to improve how we care for our oceans. That planning includes where we locate activities like shipping lanes.

His thoughts carry a new urgency for me now.

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