Manatee returns to bay after six years

Chessie, known to travel as far north as R.I., seen in Virginia last month

September 27, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

An endangered manatee paid a visit to the Chesapeake Bay this summer -- the first confirmed sighting here in six years, marine mammal experts said. And they suspect the stealth visitor was Chessie, the celebrity manatee who won hearts along the East Coast during a 1995 jaunt to Rhode Island.

Acting on a tip from a pair of startled water-skiers, marine animal rescue coordinator David Schofield of the National Aquarium saw a manatee Aug. 23 in Cornfield Creek, a tributary of the Sassafrass River, which divides Kent and Cecil counties on the Upper Shore.

The creature was too quick for Schofield's camera. But on Aug. 30, a Virginia scientist took photographs of a manatee lounging at the Great Bridge Locks on the Virginia coast, and compared the scars on the animal's back with old pictures of Chessie.

It was a match.

"We're all thrilled," Schofield said. "It was really cool to see a manatee in the bay again."

Schofield thinks the manatee he saw on the Sassafras in August "could have been Chessie, and if you figure the times and the distances, it probably was."

Chessie's first brush with fame occurred in August 1994, when he was spotted in the Upper Chesapeake -- the first of the rare, warm-blooded creatures recorded that far north since the 19th century. As bay waters grew chilly that fall, the slow-swimming mammal was rescued by scientists from the National Aquarium who radio-tagged him and airlifted him to Florida.

The manatee became a marine superstar the next summer, when scientists tracked him through New York Harbor, where he swam past the Statue of Liberty, and on to Point Judith, Rhode Island, the farthest north a manatee had been known to travel.

But Chessie shook off his radio tag on the homeward trip and sank out of sight.

"In 1998, he was seen hanging around Montauk Harbor" on Long Island, Schofield said, "but we have all been concerned about him for the last three years."

Once rare outside Florida, manatee sightings are becoming more common in the Carolinas and farther north, said James Reid, a manatee expert at the U.S. Geological Service's Florida Caribbean Science Center. It's a sign the endangered creatures are making a comeback, despite coastal development and the danger of speedboats, and spreading beyond their Florida stronghold, he said.

"There probably are more manatees than there were 50 years ago, just because people don't eat them anymore," Reid said.

Schofield thinks the sea cow's presence here is a sign that the bay's condition is improving, with a bit more of the underwater grasses that manatees eat.

You could consider Chessie an "oddball," a rover who refuses to settle down, Schofield said. But the aquarium scientist prefers to think of him as a "pioneer," the first in a new wave of mid-Atlantic manatees. And Reid, the Florida expert, agrees.

"John Smith documented manatees in the Chesapeake" in 1608, Reid said. "I think we're seeing the return of a traditional migration pattern that went on hundreds and hundreds of years ago."

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