Rare whale sightings in Maryland

Published June 21, 2010

Visitors to the beaches of Ocean City, Maryland, have been treated to some rare and interesting sightings recently. Our Animal Rescue team has received several reports of large whales feeding very close to shore over the last week, which makes for great viewing while on vacation.

The whale in the photograph below has been identified as a humpback whale and was spotted at 42nd Street in Ocean City on June 18. The picture was provided courtesy of Jennifer and Steve Gower.

Our Animal Rescue staff members have been fielding a lot of questions about these sightings, so we'd like to share some important information:

As you can see from the picture, the whale is very close to the shore. The Mid-Atlantic coast is a popular destination for migrating marine mammals (dolphins, whales, seals or manatees) and sea turtles, but recently these animals are coming much closer to land.

Why is that? Large whales, like most marine animals, tend to congregate in areas where food is plentiful. Recently, large schools of Atlantic menhaden have been spotted along the Atlantic coast of Maryland and Delaware. As a result of this, there have been several big pods of dolphins, and even large whales spotted very close to shore feeding on the menhaden; at times there have even been reports of dolphins and large whales feeding in the same area together – what an exciting sight!

Ever wonder how they feed? Humpback whales are filter feeders, which mean they have baleen plates that are made of keratin (like our hair and fingernails) instead of teeth. Baleen whales will open their mouths to take a large gulp of water, including any food items in the water (krill, fish, shrimp, etc.). They close their mouths and use their tongues to force the water back out of their mouths, which traps any food items in the baleen. They will then use their large tongues to lick any food items off their baleen and will swallow the food items whole. A whale's mouth operates similar to a pasta strainer!

These marine mammals are experts in navigating in-shore waters, and usually do so only when the tide is high. Along the Mid-Atlantic coast, this is indeed a rare sight, and one that should be appreciated from the beach.

Seeing these animals close to shore is a reminder that it is important for us to enjoy, respect and protect the aquatic environments that we share with marine mammals and sea turtles. It's up to us to ensure their survival, and to ensure our future generations can appreciate these animal-sighting experiences that we witness today.

What can you do to protect marine mammals and other aquatic animals in our area?

  • Slow down – boat strikes are a frequent source of injuries for marine mammals and endangered sea turtles.
  • Dispose of trash properly, particularly plastics and plastic bags. Marine animals confuse trash with a food source or become entangled.
  • Do not release balloons. Balloon debris can fall into bodies of water where animals can choke on the pieces or become entangled.
  • Never dispose of fishing line or nets in the water, as marine animals can easily become entangled.
  • If beachgoers spot a stranded animal, they are required by law to keep their distance, and encouraged to call the Maryland Natural Resource Police at 1-800-628-9944 or the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue team at 410-373-0083 to report the animal.
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