For the last three years the U.S. Navy has quietly looked out for whales and other marine mammals along the coast.
Technically, it's a requirement. To get permits to train at sea, the Navy needs to monitor the effects of its ships on sea life. But while it could spend thousands of dollars on the task, it spends between $3.5 million and $4 million a year along the Atlantic coast and a couple more on the Pacific.
"The requirements for monitoring are pretty generic. We could easily just go out a few times a month, take pictures and check the box for the requirement," said Joel Bell, senior marine resources specialist. "The Navy takes this very seriously."
This year the Marine Species Monitoring Program has been more important than ever. Four juvenile male humpback whales have washed up dead on local shores, the most recent two weeks ago on an Eastern Shore beach.
To help with the research, Bell, who is in charge of the program for the Atlantic Fleet, enlisted HDR engineering. HDR's Dan Engelhaupt and his team have spent the winter on the water with Virginia's pod of juvenile humpbacks, documenting the animals, collecting tissue samples and attaching satellite tags to monitor their movements.
Engelhaupt is well aware of the impact that shipping has when the whales spend four or five months in and around the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. His team members keep a catalog of whales they encounter -- 110 so far.
"And about 10 percent of them show signs of impact with ships," he said. "That's pretty high compared to other areas."
Engelhaupt said the situation along Virginia's coast is problematic because of where the whales spend most of their time. They like the shipping channel leading into the Bay for two reasons: One, they like the deeper water and, two, that's where most of their food source is concentrated.
"That's a bad place for them to be," Engelhaupt said.
With hundreds of container ships entering and leaving the Bay each week, the chance of a strike is much higher. It doesn't help that humpbacks are extremely slow swimmers.
"Other ports where whales go aren't as concentrated in a small space like here," Engelhaupt said. "This situation is kind of unique."
It hasn't helped that more whales have been migrating into the area from the north. Engelhaupt said they started showing up in November and likely won't leave until later this month.
"The findings are troubling and we need to get everybody together on the same page on what to do about it," he said. Results and data from the Navy's monitoring and research is available to the public on a web portal.
But he and Bell say there are few solutions. The Navy, Bell said, has lookouts when vessels are in areas where whales are known to be. And the service's ships are more maneuverable than larger container ships.
"With lookouts and slower speeds, we can better avoid where the whales have been surfacing," Bell said. "It's harder for container ships. They need to be slower when entering the area."
Another problem Engelhaupt sees during his research trips is pleasure boaters.
"All marine mammals are protected by law and it's illegal to harass them," he said. "Some of these whales are super friendly and curious. We've seen pleasure boaters flying around trying to get as close to the whales as possible. That needs to stop."
Both Bell and Engelhaupt are hoping solutions that would protect the whales and still allow ships to pass through the channel can be found before next season. They say that while four whales were found dead, most likely from propeller strikes, more could have died and washed out to sea.
One whale, nicknamed Stumpy because a prop cut off its dorsal fin, easily could have died but seems to be managing.
"We're doing all that we can," Bell said. "It's a shame when these animals die, so we're trying."