By STEVE SZKOTAK
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - Whales by the dozen are wintering in the unseasonably warm waters off this resort city, attracting a flotilla of recreational boats packed with sightseers hoping to glimpse the big mammals gorging on tons of bait fish within sight of the oceanfront's high-rise hotels.
While elated by the unexpected visit, scientists are also concerned that the offseason attraction could create potentially deadly conflicts between boats and their propellers and whales working the waters to satisfy their prodigious appetites.
Ships from the world's largest naval base in Norfolk and cargo traffic up the Chesapeake Bay to busy port facilities in Virginia and Baltimore also pose a potential threat, they say. The waters off Virginia are much shallower than those where whales are more commonly found.
"We feel they don't have the depth refuge and the whales can't dive under the ships," said Susan G. Barco, a senior scientist at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation.
The cause for the concern was apparent this past weekend when whale-watching boats departed Rudee's Inlet, a fishing and boating center located at the southern end of the resort's famed boardwalk, for the short trip offshore.
Scores of fishing boats were bobbing in the water as a touring boat with passengers on two decks sailed into prime whaling grounds. The distinctive spouts soon signaled the whales' presence as they broke the surface, creating an excited scramble on deck as people flocked to the rail to look at the whales' glistening, stout bodies surfacing. Some whales were scarred from unknown encounters.
"It's surprising how tolerant they are of us," said Donna Dorroh, a Richmond attorney who was on the tour with her husband, Mark. "We were thrilled and cheering every time we saw one. They seemed less impressed with us."
As a guide directed passengers to the latest sighting, she also cautioned nearby recreational boaters to give the whales a wide berth and to reel in any fishing line and hooks.
At least a couple of whales have been snagged on parachute gear _ an array of hooks usually intended to catch a striper. Monofilament line is the real concern because it could sever a fin, said Jackie Bort, another scientist at the Virginia Aquarium.
"We're not discouraging people from fishing," she said. "We're asking fishermen, if they're around whales, to take their gear out of the water or don't approach the whale."
The whales and many boaters are drawn by the same thing: silvery menhaden and other bait fish. The whales eat a ton or more of the protein-rich fish each day. The bait fish are also on the menu of blue fin tuna and striped bass, which has attracted a large number fishing boats. Gannets dive-bomb the churning water for the bait fish, intent on getting their fill, too.
Nolan Agner's AquaMan Sportsfishing Charters has three boats for hire, and he's seen both sides of the equation. He was sitting in one of his charters while customers hauled in striped bass circled by whales feeding on the same bait that attracted the stripers.
"I saw a whale the other day come up and his mouth was full of dogfish," said Agner, who has run his charter business for more than a dozen years and has never seen whales congregate so close to shore.
"I've seen that many offshore. I've never seen that many inshore," he said.
Water temperatures of 40-plus degrees have kept menhaden in these waters rather than seas farther south, which has drawn the fin whales, humpbacks and smaller minke whales. During a more seasonably cold winter, the humpbacks would have continued their migration from the Canadian Maritimes, the Gulf of Maine and New England to warmer waters in the West Indies to mate and calve. Scientists are not sure where finbacks and minke winter. The finbacks can measure up to 70 feet.
More than 40 individual whales have been identified since they began arriving in December.
The Navy said it is always mindful of whales and other marine mammals, and especially so this year.
Navy vessels are "exercising increased due diligence to avoid marine mammals while operating off the Virginia coast and approaches to the Chesapeake Bay," Julie Ann Ripley, a public affairs spokeswoman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, wrote in an email.
The Navy, for instance, uses trained "watchstanders" to scan the waters for whales, and some training exercises can either be delayed or modified to ensure their safety, Ripley said.