The wild animals of the Outer Banks are not restricted to the land. Pick any pleasant day and spend some time on the beach looking out to sea and there’s a good chance a pod of dolphins will swim by.
Dolphin, however, is just one member of the whale family that can be seen from the Outer Banks. The most common—by far—but not the only one.
Dolphins swimming close to shore are fun to watch, especially when they decide to ride waves. There doesn’t appear to be any practical reason for that, except that it’s fun.
For something truly spectacular though, keep an eye out to sea in early winter and early spring. That’s the most common time for humpback whales to be passing by.
A fully grown adult humpback whale is between 40-50 feet and weighs in at 33-40 tons. And they breech—leap—out of the water. All 33-40 tons. No one is quite sure why they do it, but the phenomenon is very well documented.
Seeing a humpback whale off the North Carolina coast is not super common, although sightings are becoming more frequent as the population increases. The whales passing by the coast are almost certainly the Gulf of Maine group. Part of the North Atlantic population, the Atlantic whales have been removed from the endangered species list because of the recovery of the population. There are now approximately 1000 whales in the Maine group.
Although dolphins and humpback whales are both members of the whale family (Cetacean), they are very different—even beyond size. Dolphins have teeth; humpback whales sift their food through baleen—a filter system inside they whale’s mouth.
Most whales that are baleen feeders only eat krill (very small shrimp) and plankton; the humpback diet includes—by choice, it appears—small shrimp and fish as well as krill and plankton. The waters around the Outer Banks are a prime winter breeding ground for menhaden fish, and it’s no accident that the whales are swimming by as the fish are gathering to spawn.
The whales seen in the December and early January are almost certainly heading for the Caribbean where the mothers give birth. The gestation period is 11 months, so mating occurs in year one and then the following year the whales return to have their calfs.
Two or three months later after mating and calving, they head back to the Gulf of Maine, which is why they are also seen in mid March to early April.
An interesting fact about humpback whales—for 10 months of the year they eat about a ton and a half of food every day. During the two months in the Caribbean when they are mating or calving, they eat very little if anything at all, living off the accumulated blubber from the previous 10 months.