Chessie the manatee this summer made his first confirmed trip to the Chesapeake Bay in five years.
The well-traveled mammal, which has been seen as far north as Rhode Island in past years, was sighted in the upper Bay in August, then along the Virginia coast in early September.
Acting on a tip from a pair of water skiers, marine animal rescue coordinator David Schofield of the National Aquarium in Baltimore said he saw a manatee Aug. 23 in Cornfield Creek, a tributary of the Sassafras River, which divides Kent and Cecil counties on the upper Eastern Shore.
A few weeks later, two engineers spotted a manatee while they were working at the Great Bridge Locks on the Virginia Coast. At the time, the manatee was inside a lock along the Intercoastal Waterway, patiently waiting for the lock to fill so he could continue his trip south.
“Manatees know about negotiating locks,” said Jim Reid, a manatee expert with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Manatees have gotten used to being around people and so have adapted to human-created habitats.”
While he was in the lock, workers there called the Virginia Marine Science Museum, which sent over a team of scientists to study and photograph the animal.
Using a photo-identification catalog, USGS scientists were able to confirm the manatee was Chessie based on scar patterns — probably left by boat propellers — on the animal’s back.
Although no photographs were taken of the manatee on the Sassafras, officials say it was probably Chessie because it is rare for most manatees, which generally stay in warm waters around Florida, to venture much farther north than Georgia.
But not for Chessie.
Chessie got his name after he was first spotted in the Upper Chesapeake in August 1994, the first time since the 1800s that one of the large animals was spotted this far north. As waters cooled that fall, scientists from the National Aquarium radio-tagged him and flew him back to Florida.
But he returned the next summer, then continued swimming all the way to Rhode Island — farther than any manatee had been known to venture. There, he turned around, apparently finding the water too cool.
Chessie lost his radio transmitter near New Haven, CT, but an interested public was able to track his return trip to Florida’s warm waters that fall.
After apparently spending the winter in Florida’s warm water, he was spotted near Fort Lauderdale the following February, where researchers again tagged him.
Chessie was last seen in August 1996, swimming south past Portsmouth, VA.
Since then, several sighting reports of manatees north of the Carolinas have been forwarded to the USGS manatee researchers, but none could be confirmed as Chessie until this summer.
There is a good chance that Chessie may be back in the future, Reid said. “Manatees are long-lived and typically repeat established movement patterns,” he said. “It’s likely that sightings of Chessie or other manatees will occur again in these northern areas.”
USGS scientists believe that Chessie’s annual migrations from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay may have been common for manatees in previous centuries. The repeated sightings of a “sea monster” in the Chesapeake, nicknamed “Chessie,” date back more than a century, and possibly include sightings of manatees that were not properly identified.
Chessie was named after the purported sea monster.
Manatees are an endangered species, with a few thousand, at most, left in U.S. waters.
The animals’ main enemies are people and boats.