The makeshift whaling boat roared out into the Atlantic Ocean, rocking and bouncing along choppy waves, slicing into stiff, cold bursts of wind.
The whale-watching boat trip had gotten off to a fast start last weekend, and neither I nor any of the other two dozen tourists needed to be told to look out for the unexpected. During winter, whales occasionally scour Virginia Beach's shores hoping to satisfy their enormous appetites with such morsels as bay anchovies.
The whale-watching tour is part of the state's Virginia Green program. A partnership between the state Tourism Corp. and Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Green works to reduce the environmental impacts of tourism, and it awards certificates to tourism-related businesses such as hotels, restaurants and attractions that take voluntary action to be more environmentally conscious.
To become Virginia Green certified, a venue must commit to providing highly visible recycling for its guests, minimize the use of disposable food service products, have a water conservation plan, reduce overall energy consumption and offer a Green Events package. Virginia Green venues place the program's seal on their Web sites, drawing clientele eager to make their excursions environmentally friendly.
Virginia Beach — a place where local tourism officials say 95 percent of its visitors arrive via automobile — is the state's first Virginia Green destination.
"This has been a very important aspect of providing green options to those travelers who seek green alternatives, both for the leisure traveler and the meeting and convention traveler," said Pam Lingle, communications manager for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The area receives approximately 2.75 million visitors annually, generating $890 million in revenue.
"Our tourists seek out green alternatives and see our destination as a place they can access these options," Lingle said. "They also have been very proactive in participating in our oceanfront recycle program." She said the program diverted more than 25 tons of waste to recycling in 2008 and more than 32 tons in 2009.
Among the other Virginia Green venues in Virginia Beach are 20 restaurants, 16 hotels and the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Virginia Beach also features seven events, including the Neptune Festival Boardwalk Weekend in September, where the oceanfront becomes a backdrop for a parade, arts and crafts and musical entertainment.
Because of its 40 blocks of attractions, arts, restaurants and shops along its shores, Virginia Beach is also listed among the Virginia Green program's most walkable cities — those where tourists are encouraged to park their cars and explore on foot.
The area also boasts First Landing State Park, the most visited park in Virginia, where tourists often embark on nature hikes. Its Back Bay Wildlife refuge offers tranquil kayaking and its 35-mile oceanfront includes a 3-mile boardwalk with a bike path.
The whale-watching tour is a leading attraction of one of the more popular Virginia Green venues, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. The expedition is often coupled with an IMAX film, "Dolphins and Whales 3D," shown at the aquarium. The 42-minute documentary by Jean-Michel Cousteau (and narrated by actress Daryl Hannah) features whales and dolphins of practically every species.
Out on the water, the whale boat tour gives tourists a chance to learn about the importance of marine life up close. The area draws humpback and fin whales, some of the largest in the sea, as well as dolphins, brown pelicans, northern gannets and cormorants.
"We're a stopping-off place for a couple of months out of the year for juvenile [whales] not old enough to be mating or adults in their off years," said Janet Schroeder, a guide for the whale-watching tour. She said that it's not unusual to spot whales in winter months.
"There's no reason [for whales] to go into warm water if there's nothing to eat," she added, "because even warm water doesn't have very much food in it."
But folks who took the trip did so knowing that throughout the two-hour-plus ride all they may see is choppy waters. Indeed posted on the Virginia Aquarium Web site is a disclaimer: Whale sightings are not guaranteed.
"It's very sporadic," said Schroeder. "Unlike other areas, like New England, where you would probably see a whale every time you would go out, you're not going to do that here. So you never know what you're going to find." Schroeder said that because whales are endangered, the boat must keep a certain distance away. But once one is spotted, the boat is put on idle or runs parallel to the whale.
"But sometimes the whales come up next to us," she said.
But on a recent Friday, no whales were to be found. In fact, virtually no marine life was visible in the area.
At one point during the trip, someone yelled, "Hey, is that a dolphin?"
Everyone scanned the waters then turned away as if to say, "Uh, no."
The most visible object in the water was a U.S. Coast Guard boat that came up alongside the whaling boat before speeding away.
But those on the trip didn't seem to mind.
"They told us that it would be a 50-50 chance" to see whales, said Clarissa Morgan, 31, of Allendale, Mich., who took the trip with her 5-year-old son, Julius. She said it was the first time she had seen the Atlantic Ocean. "I think it's a good experience, even to ride the boat," said Morgan, "especially for us because all we have is Lake Michigan."
The first Virginia Beach restaurant to be Virginia Green certified is Crocs 19th Street Bistro, about five blocks from the shore. The restaurant's carpet has about 45 percent recycled content and its aluminum chairs and tables have replaced wood and plastic to avoid cleaning and refinishing with harmful products.
The menu includes everything from pita pizzas to seafood risotto to New York Strip steak. Much of its produce is purchased at nearby farms, its seafood from local waters.
A few other local restaurants appeared to be closed for the season, and boardwalk activity was sporadic at best. But many indoor Virginia Green activities, such as the aquarium, were packed.
Lingle said that the Virginia Green program will bolster the area's growing reputation as a year-round tourist spot.
"Over 61 percent of our visitors come between September through May," she said. "The Convention and Visitors Bureau and the hospitality businesses make a commitment to their green initiatives year-round."
If you go
Virginia Green is a program that promotes eco-friendly practices in the state's tourism industry. The program certifies hotels, restaurants and attractions that take steps to reduce harmful impacts on the environment. Go to virginiagreentravel.org.
Virginia Beach is about 250 miles south of Baltimore, or about a five-hour drive, depending on traffic.
Courtyard Marriott, 2501 Atlantic Ave., 757-491-6222, rates from $129. The hotel has spacious rooms and suites with furnished balconies and uses green practices such as dishware and glassware in place of plastic.
Crocs 19th Street Bistro, 620 19th St.,757-428-5444. Offering mainly Middle Eastern cuisine and full entrees from $15, the restaurant uses produce from nearby farms and seafood from local waters.
Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, 717 General Booth Blvd., 757-385-3474. The aquarium underwent a $25 million renovation last year. Its latest exhibit is "Restless Planet," featuring swamp, desert and island habitats. Whale-watching cruises are offered by the aquarium from December to mid-March. The boat tours leave from the Virginia Beach Fishing Center, 200 Winston Ave. Tickets are $28 for adults and $24 for kids. Call 757-385-0500.
Wildlife and birding: Follow the Seashore to Cypress Loop of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. The loop, which encompasses Virginia Beach, includes First Landing State Park, a 2,900-acre park with back dunes, tidal marsh, cypress swamp and maritime forest. Go to www.dgif.virginia.gov.
Wineries: New Kent Winery and Williamsburg Winery are located just off of Interstate 64 in the Hampton Roads region. The wineries have not been certified Virginia Green, but they do offer tours, tastings and a chance to enjoy the outdoors. The first-ever Virginia Wine Week — "Love by the Glass" — is March 22-28, with restaurants and shops offering Virginia varietals for sale by the glass. Details at virginiawine.org.