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Marine Species Monitoring

Mid-Atlantic Humpback Whale Monitoring

Introduction & Objectives

North Atlantic humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) of the West Indies distinct population segment (Bettridge et al. 2015) migrate from six northern feeding grounds to Caribbean Sea waters during the winter months (Waring et al. 2013). Some whales do not take part in this migration and use the Mid-Atlantic region to over-winter (Barco et al. 2002). Understanding the occurrence and behavior of humpback whales in the vicinity of U.S. Navy training and vessel transiting activities off the coast of Virginia is important in mitigating potentially harmful impacts on the species.

Humpback whale sighting information off the Virginia Beach area has been collected with various methods and sporadic field effort, with shore-based counts in 1991 and vessel-based photo-identification efforts in 1992 (Swingle et al. 1993), and further cataloging efforts using photos taken on whale-watching excursions and from stranded whales (Barco et al. 2002). Data have shown some individuals returning in subsequent years, and it is suggested that the area may act as a supplemental winter feeding grounds for the returning whales (Barco et al. 2002). Photos of whales sighted off Virginia were matched to cataloged whales from the Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence regions (Barco et al. 2002, Aschettino et al. 2018; Mallette and Barco 2019).

Until recently, information on the movements of individuals within this region has been limited. Published results from the first 3 years of this study (Aschettino et al. 2020a) and have highlighted that humpback whales in this region spend a significant portion of their time in high-traffic areas, including the shipping lanes at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. This growing body of data is important to assess the potential for disturbance to humpback whales found in U.S. Navy training ranges and high-traffic areas in the Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic coastal waters.

The objectives of this project are to assess the baseline occurrence and behavior of humpback whales in the Hampton Roads mid-Atlantic region by addressing the following questions:

• What age classes (juveniles, sub-adults, adults) are utilizing the waters within and adjacent to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay?
• Do humpback whales exhibit site-fidelity over periods of days to years?

• Do humpback whales congregate in specific high-traffic and/or high-use Navy training areas?

• Do humpback whales spend significant time within or move through areas of U.S. Navy live-fire and mine neutralization exercise (MINEX) training)?


 Project summary video

Technical Approach

This project focuses on nearshore non-systematic visual surveys from a small vessel with associated photo identification, unmanned aerial systems, biopsy sampling, and tagging using Wildlife Computers Smart Position and Temperature (SPOT6) Argos-linked satellite tags as well as SPLASH-F variations that record diving behavior and integrate Fastloc© GPS (Wildtrack Telemetrry Systems Limited) in the Low Impact Minimally Percutaneous Electronic Transmitter (LIMPET) configuration. These small tags measuring only two inches in length and height and less than an inch wide, attach to the dorsal fin or base of the dorsal fin by two sterilized darts. This placement allows frequent transmissions to the Argos satellites when the animals surface, providing locations throughout the day on the whereabouts of the tagged individuals. Tags are designed to eventually fall off the animal after a period of weeks.  Primary objectives of this project include:

1. Collect baseline occurrence data (location, sex, group size, behavior) of humpback whales (and other species of baleen whales opportunistically)

2. Obtain identification photographs and drone video footage of humpback whales for inclusion in regional and local catalogs, as well as morphometric measurements and health assessments

3. Collect biopsy samples of humpback whales for sex determination, mitochondrial control region sequencing, and microsatellite genotyping of tissue samples, and stable isotope analysis to determine foraging related to prey consumption.

4. Conduct satellite tagging to document seasonal humpback whale movement patterns in the nearshore waters off Virginia Beach, specifically whether the whales spend significant time in areas of high shipping traffic and/or areas of U.S. Navy training exercises.

The study area includes waters in and around the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay as well as the W-50 MINEX region off Virginia Beach. Although the operating area for each survey is chosen depending on weather conditions and reports of humpback whales or other baleen whales in the area, there will always remain a focus on areas of high Navy use, such as the W-50a MINEX zone and shipping channels. During each encounter, every effort will be made to collect identification photographs of the dorsal fins and tail flukes (when possible). Based on the animal’s identification, satellite tags may be deployed and biopsy samples may be collected, depending on what data has previously been collected from that individual.

Progress & Results

This project expanded to the mid-shelf region and broadened focus to include other baleen whale species beginning in the 2022/23 field season.  Data collection will continue for nearshore humpback whales to maintain ongoing photo identification efforts but future tagging will be focused on the mid-shelf region, with the exception of continuing to address behavioral response of humpbacks to large vessels in the shipping channels.

Please see the Mid-Atlantic Nearshore & Mid-shelf Baleen Whale Study for future updates.


Researchers from HDR and the U.S. Navy conducted 152 nearshore surveys between January 2015 and March 2022 totaling 1,194 hours of effort and covering 13,315 km of trackline. Although humpback whales were the focal species for these surveys, data on other high-priority baleen whale species were also collected opportunistically.  During these surveys, there have been 592 baleen whale sightings, including 543 sightings of humpback whales totaling 747 individuals, 25 sightings of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) totaling 32 individuals, 14 sightings of minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) totaling 17 individuals, and 7 sightings of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) totaling 12 individuals. Eighty (80) biopsy samples have been collected and 97 satellite tags deployed (58 location-only SPOT tags and 39 location-dive SPLASH tags) through the 2021/22 field season.

As of March 2022, there have been 246 unique humpback whales photo-identified during the course of this project.  Approximately three-quarters of individuals were estimated to be juveniles based on size assessment in the field. Photo-IDs are incorporated into the Mid-Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog and also shared with other regional catalogs. Although matching for these images is ongoing,  matches to known animals from the Gulf of Maine. Newfoundland, and St. Pierre and Miquelon have been made.

Tagging results show that the area near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is heavily utilized by humpbacks whales. Using data collected from the first three years of satellite tagging effort, Aschettino et al. (2020) found that individuals spend considerable time engaged in foraging behavior at or near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. These results indicate that local habitat preferences directly overlap with high-traffic areas, which can have deadly consequences. During the 2015/2106 field season, four whales were encountered with fresh injuries, likely from vessel strikes, and during the 2016/2017 field season three whales died of vessel-related injuries over an 8-day period. In April 2017 the National Marine Fisheries Service declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for humpback whales between Maine and Florida, demonstrating the need for continued research on animals in this region.

A pilot study was incorporated in 2019 to assess the behavior of humpbacks to large vessels by deploying digital acoustic recording tags (DTags) in conjunction with focal follows. The tags provide the opportunity to study the whales’ three-dimensional movement and reactions to the sound of vessel approaches. This behavioral response component of the project has subsequently been continued and we anticipate more DTag deployments during future field seasons.

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