the fish—and likely the whales—are
swimming just under the surf. While
the number of whales here varies each
season, I’ve been lucky, with clear sightings of the graceful giants three of the
four times I’ve made the trip down. It’s
an excellent way to combat both cabin
fever and nature deprivation.
Each time, their stately presence
washes over me like a benediction. (I’ve
also been known to listen to their otherworldly whale songs in my spare time.)
;ar she blows I whisper to myself as I
hear and glimpse a telltale plume of vapor.
A shiver of awe runs through the crowd,
silencing all chatter as we move to that
side of the boat and methodically scan the
quadrant of water where we expect the
humpback to resurface to breathe.
Rayfield estimates that this particular
whale is 55 feet long and weighs over 40
tons. For the next few minutes, it generously surfaces several times.
Humpbacks, a common winter visitor here, are especially viewer-friendly
because of their feeding habits. As
filter feeders, they take in huge gulps
of water, filtering the water out through
their baleen while retaining its riches of
plankton, krill and small fish. And they
need to come up for air.
“They’re the most acrobatic of the
baleen whales,” Rayfield says as the mammals maneuver around us. Humpbacks
also occasionally burst free of the relatively
shallow water (here it ranges from 30 to
60 feet deep) and hurl themselves into the
air—a feat I’m still hoping to see. At one
point, we have four separate whales taking
turns surfacing around the boat.
After docking back at Rudee Inlet,
Carol and I make the short drive over
to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s dock on Owls Creek, just
in time for our second outing of the day.
Lots of families with children board
the Atlantic Explorer, a 65-foot catama-
ran, and soon we are cruising into the
lovely cove and wetlands area behind the
aquarium, where we instantly spy a bald
eagle atop a dead tree. A few feathery
clouds accent the blue sky, and the wind
drops as the temperature inches up. By
now we don’t need gloves.
From the get-go, this tour focuses
more deeply on the scientific aspects of
local flora and fauna, delving into current research and the characteristics
of local habitats. By comparison, this
makes the first tour seem a tad touristy.
Owls Creek is a true salt marsh,
meaning the only fresh water it gets is
from rain. (;e aquarium uses the creek
water in many of its 800,000 gallons of
exhibits.) Evergreen loblolly pines and
wax myrtle trees line the pristine cove,
having adapted to the brackish water.
Alexis Rabon, the aquarium’s boat trip
coordinator, encourages us to look for