Just can't get enough of Chessie Manatee: The elusive sea cow hasn't been positively sighted since he ditched his radio tracking tag in July.

August 15, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

All right already. Enough with the manatee.

This is yet another story about Chessie, the spunky sea cow who sought out the Chesapeake Bay in summers past for his annual migrations from Florida.

Rarely has there been so much hype over a 1,200-pound creature with a brain the size of a very small lettuce.

For the third year in a row, folks along the Maryland shore are claiming they have seen him.

If this keeps up, once again Chessie will get eaten up by the public (well, not literally because that's illegal).

But the accompanying media bonanza could make the blubbery sea cow more recognizable than, say, Parris N. Glendening.

Some biologists are a little stunned by the Chessie craze.

There are tons of other manatees that get nary a notice -- Brutus, Sweet Gums and Snooty have floated in obscurity for years -- but people can't get enough of Chessie.

They're seeing him even when he isn't there.

"Every swirl in the Chesapeake Bay, if people don't know what it is, becomes a Chessie sighting," said Jim Reid, a leading manatee guru from Florida who loves the creatures so much he swims with them.

"Isn't there other news around Washington, D.C.?"

The cult of Chessie is getting out of hand.

Some of the sightings are turning out to be just water bugs or ripples from passing schools of fish.

This year, despite reports tracking Chessie as far north as Annapolis, biologists have been unable to prove that he's even in the neighborhood.

He could be lunching on sea kelp off Stumpy Point, N.C., for all they know.

Even if he is in the bay, which many believe is entirely likely, this wouldn't be so remarkable.

Biologists say manatees have been migrating this far north for the past four centuries.

Chessie is not the first.

Nor is he the fastest. Earlier this year, when several other manatees were spotted off the coast of Virginia, Chessie was found dawdling in the waters off Beaufort, N.C.

That was just before he knocked off his radio tag in July.

Now, no one knows exactly where he is.

Of course, there are many reasons not only to track this creature, but to love him.

First, Chessie is a member of an endangered species. There are only about 2,600 others like him.

And he is exceptionally hearty, swimming as though he were on steroids.

For the past two summers, he has traveled much farther north than most other migrating manatees. Last year, he reached Rhode Island, while most of his comrades stopped at the Carolinas.

He is one of the first manatees to cross the line into celebrity and is now the sea cows' national poster child, helping to raise thousands of dollars each year for manatee protection through sales of everything from $36.95 stuffed manatee dolls to books such as "A Manatee Christmas."

Not nearly as telegenic as Flipper -- who was a dolphin -- Chessie is instead the underdog of sea mammals.

With his gummy overbite and excess facial hair, Chessie has had to get by on his great personality: curious, warm, friendly and non-human-eating.

But were it not for his Chesapeake jaunts, Chessie would never have become a media darling.

He is too uncoordinated to balance a ball on his nose and too dumpy to win top billing at Sea World.

He squeaks like a mouse, instead of moaning mysteriously like a whale, and can't even blow water through a spout (although he can hermetically seal his nostrils when he wants to).

These are hard times for the manatee. Already, 325 have died this year, the highest yearly death toll on record for the manatee, attributable in part to a "red tide" of bacteria that swept through the waters of southwest Florida in March.

Meanwhile, the propellers of motor boats continue to slash the sea cows to death, and recent funding reductions by Congress have dealt a blow to the nation's manatee protection programs.

The Save the Manatee Club has already raised $20,000 through its "Adopt Chessie" program. For $20 a year, "parents" can buy an underwater picture of Chessie, a lengthy Chessie history and a parchment Chessie adoption certificate. The money goes to manatee rescues -- the best-known being Chessie's $6,000 airlift from the bay in 1994, which the club funded.

No matter what happens to Chessie, there will be those who think he is the cutest animal on the planet, and those who will want to run in the other direction at the mention of his name.

Baltimore resident Stan Skwirs knows which category he falls into.

"I tell ya, they gotta live their own lives. They want to come up as far as they want, it's up to them," he said. "But in my opinion, I've already had enough."

Pub Date: 8/15/96


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