VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – This winter, a record could be broken when it comes to the number of individual humpback whales spotted off the coast of Virginia Beach.
Kristin Rayfield, a naturalist who has been cataloging whale sightings for more than 16-years, said she has tracked 47 different humpback whales since the beginning of the 2023.
The only year she’s counted more is 2012 when she cataloged 56.
However, with the higher number of whales may also come a number of deaths. Rayfield said most whales like to hang out in a very dangerous place.
On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries confirmed that the North Atlantic right whale that washed up on Virginia Beach Sunday, had injuries consistent with a vessel strike.
It was the fourth large whale to strand in Virginia in 2023. An Unusual Mortality Event was declared for North Atlantic right whales in 2017, and currently includes 97 whales either dead, seriously injured or sub-lethally injured or ill.
While the cause of death isn’t known yet for the humpback that washed up in a similar area the week prior, there have been an unusual number of humpback whale deaths along the Atlantic coast since 2016, during which at least 180 humpback mortalities were observed between Maine and Florida.
In roughly 40% of the whales studied, vessel strikes or entanglement are the suspected culprit according to NOAA.
“Every one of them is obviously devastating of all of us,” Rayfield said. “We’ve had a really high number of whales here in this area this year … with the numbers you’re going to have number of deaths unfortunately.”
The whales, specifically juvenile humpback whales, spend summer months in northern feeding grounds and come here to eat during the winter.
Their food of choice: Atlantic Menhaden.
Menhaden often try to find refuge in the the Atlantic Ocean and Thimble Shoals shipping channels.
“We are seeing most of our whales in the shipping channel,” Rayfield said. “That’s where they are feeding that is where they are swimming and that is unfortunately a bad spot for them to be in.”
Between increased activity at the Port of Virginia, Norfolk’s cruise terminal and the U.S. Navy, there is a lot of ship traffic each day.
Christy Cowan, who works at U.S. Fleet Forces Command in the Environmental Readiness Division as the lead for Marine Mammal Protection Act compliance, said that while ships don’t have to follow the seasonal management areas, or SMAs, they have a different responsibility.
“All government-operated and contracted and owned ships, rather than having to follow the SMAs,” Cowan said, “what they have to do is, is they’re under obligation to consult with National Marine Fisheries under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and part of that consultation is that we develop mitigation measures.”
As part of the Navy’s mitigation measures – available in its environmental impact statement and in permits it gets from the National Marine Fisheries Service – “we agree do to quite a bit of training with our bridge watch standers,” Cowan said, “and then we always have at least one, usually three lookouts on watch, and the bridge watch team is trained to … see whales and other marine mammals and indications of them, but also, they know they have to maintain at least a 500-yard distance from them when they see them.”
There are currently active Seasonal Management Areas off all major ports in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Chesapeake Bay, which are in effect through April 30.
All vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in these areas. Additionally, there is an active voluntary SLOW Zone for all vessels off the Chesapeake Bay that is in effect through Feb. 23. Maintaining speeds of 10 knots or less can help protect right whales from vessel collisions according to NOAA.
There are also proposed rules that would expand “slow zones” off the East Coast and require more vessels to comply with those rules.
The USCG and Navy is exempt from the speed limit, however, both branches of the military have standing orders to report sightings or collisions, although that can be complicated.
“Given the size of large merchant and cruise vessels, it is unlikely that their operators will detect a whale strike when it occurs,” NOAA’s website states. “There can be no noticeable change in speed or other signal.”
There has also been speculation that ramped up efforts to establish offshore wind could be a contributing factor.
“We’ve heard a lot about the windmills sonar testing for installing windmills offshore,” Rayfield said. “That’s just not the case with these baleen whales. They don’t use echolocations. They are not affected by the sonar.”
NOAA also has said there is no evidence to link the deaths with survey work for offshore wind farms.
“We definitely encourage everyone to come out and experience the whales out here that are thriving in our waters in winter months,” Rayfield said.
She said the feeding season runs through early March.