Experience Up-Close Whale Watching at Sandbridge Beach, VA

whale watchingDid you know whale watching was possible at Sandbridge Beach? Every winter humpback whales migrate up our coast and lately they’ve been arriving in record numbers.

These massive creatures are so large you can’t miss spotting them as they swim past — in fact, they can normally be clearly seen when you’re standing on the beach. Humpbacks can grow to more than 50 feet long and weigh almost 80,000 pounds.

Humpbacks are found in almost every ocean around the world, and they migrate up to 16,000 miles each year in search of food, mates, and breeding grounds. These mammals seek out cold water to eat, then move to give birth in the warmer waters of the Caribbean. The whales that you can see passing by Sandbridge Beach are North Atlantic humpbacks — and there are only about 800 of them in this previously endangered species.

When to See Whales

Whales move through Virginia’s waters from December through March. When winters are mild, baitfish stay longer, attract more whales, and may even keep them hanging around a while. Humpbacks who are too young or old to mate tend to stop short of going all the way to the islands, so keep an eye out; you never know when you might spot a humpback hanging back.

Where to See Whales

Though a boat trip increases your chance of seeing a humpback whale, occasionally these bus-size mammals are spotted right off the beach in no more than eight feet of water. Fishing boats have reported humpbacks threading between them while they were in sight of shore.

On a recent whale-watching tour off of Sandbridge Beach, a whale came close enough to the tour boat that the spray from its blowhole soaked guests. In winters past, there were so many whales that the Navy reported they were jumping around like dolphins in the shipping lanes — even stopping a submarine in its tracks.

Whale Safety

Humpbacks are known for being curious. They break the surface to check out boats and even roll over so an eye is out of the water. If you’re kayaking, fishing, or walking the pier or the beach, you could see a whale up close and personal. Just remember: Federal law protects them. If you find yourself close to a whale, don’t chase it or try to get closer. Legally, you have to stay 100 yards — or about the length of a football field — away from whales.

Boat Trips

Whale-watching tours are offered by experienced staff who know about the animals you’ll encounter. Most whales are identified by unique markings on their tails. Keeping track of them individually helps scientists learn more about their behavior. Data-collection experts are on board almost all whale-watching tour boats with binders full of photos to help you identify which whales you’ve seen.

Most vessels are large and comfortable with bathrooms, a snack bar, a full bar, outdoor seating, and a heated indoor cabin, but ask for specifics when you book your whale-watching excursion. Boats are also physically accessible, so whale watchers in wheelchairs are welcome.

To maximize your chance of seeing whales, look for companies with guarantees. Local operator Rudee Tours is located just 14 miles north of Sandbridge, and promises you’ll see a whale if you take their trip between December and the end of February. No whales? You get to go again for free until you see one.

What to Bring

Photographers (pros or novices) will want to pack binoculars and a telephoto lens, although a mobile phone can capture some pretty amazing shots, too! Bring warm clothing and a waterproof outer layer because it’s usually 10 degrees cooler on the water than on land.

If you get motion sick easily or it’s your first time on a boat, it’s a good idea to take medicine about an hour before leaving. Boat tours have an on-board photographer who will capture whale sightings for you. Unless photography is part of the fun for you, consider leaving your phone or camera in your pocket and just enjoy being in the moment.

What You’ll See

If you see a whale, you’ll likely catch it surfacing and diving and/or slapping the water with its fins. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see it breaching the water by a full body length. On a whale-watching boat tour you may also glimpse dolphins, turtles, and sea birds such as gannets and oystercatchers. If the boat engine is off, you might be able to feel the vibration of the whales’ singing through the boat’s hull.

On the beach, keep an eye out for large splashes in deeper water to indicate that whales are in the area.

Plan Your Trip

If seeing a whale in the wild is on your bucket list, now is the time to start planning your trip to Sandbridge Beach. Whether from shore or while sailing, spotting one of these rare, spectacular animals is a sight you’ll never forget.

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