A Marine Wonderland In Virginia Beach by Karen Hamlin

What is the largest animal in the history of the world to ever live on this planet? Dinosaur? Did I hear you say the prehistoric dinosaur? Wrong. The Blue Whale is the largest animal in history, reaching up to 90 feet long and 150 tons and yet it is the most elusive mammal in the ocean and rarely seen. Because of its size, you’d think it would swallow ships, but instead it feeds on lots of krill (tiny shrimp-like creatures): 4 tons a day. It can hear a heartbeat two miles away and can hear sound as far as 1000 miles away.

And what about the terrifying shark that experts say won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them (that is, if they’re not hungry at that moment). Did you know that a shark can sniff out one point of blood in 10 million points of water at 1 mile away? They can also detect electrical impulses given off by all animals (nowhere to hide?). Somehow these big guys command respect and a large dose of fear. After learning how sensitive their senses are (including senses we don’t posses at all) I felt that they were the more advanced species.


Friendly Shark?


All of this fascinating information and more is waiting to be discovered at the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach. The Main Museum Building houses the Atlantic Ocean Pavilion, which re-creates the Norfolk Canyon in a 300,000-gallon open ocean aquarium. Here you can make eye contact with sharks of all sizes and stare at their doll-like, blank eyeballs and see their multiple, razor sharp teeth as close as a dentist, as they swim straight at you and stare back. Your heart thumps to the beat of “Jaws” when you learn how fast they can swim to their prey and that everything they do is instinctual; no thinking, no brains, no emotions.

Giant sea turtles swim with the stingrays and sharks, diving to the bottom of the tank doing the turtle breast stroke, then bobbing to the surface for a puff of air. Whales and dolphins, however, claim a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder and seem to have their own communication system. In fact, whales should get honorary engineering degrees for a system they developed for ambushing schools of fish.

In 1996, the Virginia Marine Science Museum (VMSM) tripled its size to offer an encompassing view of Virginia’s unique marine environment: the Chesapeake Bay, fresh water rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. The new Owl’s Creek Marsh Pavilion houses the cutest river otter habitat where visitors can watch the otters under water as well as on land. Watching them socialize is interesting and funny because of the way they behave like humans: harassing each other when bored; griping; who’s the boss; who goes first; loving nuzzles to make up (sound familiar?).

Another interesting exhibit is the macro marsh display that could be titled, “Honey, I shrunk the visitors”. Here the imitation plants and animals are ten times their normal size, making you feel like an ant walking thorough the forest. You are at the base of enormous blades of grass and plants where a spider is dangling over your head and a bird is the size of a VW. It really changes one’s perspective of life! VMSM also sports a new 3-D IMAX Theatre featuring marine science and nature films

Owl’s Creek Marsh Pavilion

Connecting the Atlantic Ocean Pavilion and the Owl’s Creek Marsh Pavilion is the 1/3-mile Nature Trail. On a day full of clear blue skies, it is a tranquil walk along the edge of the salt marsh, the last one left in Virginia with direct access to the ocean. View the award-winning wild flower habitat and if you look carefully you may see an osprey and other birds.

Mysteriously, in the mid 1990’s, the endangered fin and juvenile humpback whales began returning to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay annually to feed in the winter. To see them in their natural habitat, boat trips are offered to search for fin and juvenile humpback whales in the winter from January through March. The week before my excursion, a boat-full of lucky passengers spotted 16 humpback whales feeding together in one area. Although I wasn’t so fortunate, the boat ride was still delightful.

Dolphin Cruises begin in mid-June and run through September. Since dolphins are the most common marine mammals in Virginia, your chances sighting them are excellent. After a cruise and a day at the museum, I returned to the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, a very popular hotel for conferences, located right on the ocean. A full resort hotel, it is naturally booked in the summer months, but in the winter it’s quiet and calming to walk the beach and enjoy the amenities without the crowds.

Dinner was near-by at Mahi-Mah’s Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Saloon, located in the Ramada Inn-The Beach, and noted to be one of the best on the Boardwalk. I was quite fussy, but the waiter was quite agreeable and my dinner of duck arrived nearly perfect.

Before you leave Virginia Beach, try to experience the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Stretching 17.6 miles from shore to shore, it connects points south of Virginia Beach and Norfolk to the Eastern Shore. It is considered an engineering wonder and saves travelers 95 miles and 90 minutes between New York and Norfolk skirting the Washington traffic. The cost for the bridge totaled $450 million and was funded by selling revenue bonds to the public: no local, state or federal tax money was used. Driving across the Bay Bridge you
are in the middle of the ocean and feel as though you are driving on the ocean. The Bridge dives under the ocean and becomes a tunnel for part of the crossing.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

One of the exciting results of the Bay Bridge-Tunnel is the attraction it has for many varieties of birds because now, even small birds can cross the long expanse of the Chesapeake Bay on their migratory routes and rest along the way on the bridge. Bird watchers from all over the world visit here for a glimpse at rare birds such as the Asian black-tailed gull from Siberia. Teta, our expert bird guide stopped the car at each of the four islands and set up her scope. Peering through it, Teta told me to, “Look for the ones who look like they have snowballs on their heads”