“There wasn’t much hope that he was around anymore,” said Cathy A. Beck, a wildlife biologist who manages the USGS photo database. In other words, they thought Chessie was dead.
It’s possible that Chessie has visited the Chesapeake Bay watershed for several years, but whoever spotted him didn’t have the presence of mind shown by boaters at a Calvert County marina when the animal showed his face Tuesday.
Boater Hank Curtis snapped a picture. The picture was sent to the National Aquarium, which forwarded it to the USGS, where Beck identified him from a telltale scar on his hide, left long ago by a boat propeller.
“It was a huge surprise,” Beck said. “I get a lot of questions every year — ‘Have you seen Chessie? Have you seen Chessie?’ The answer for 10 years has been, ‘No, sorry.’
“I know other [manatees] have been seen in the Chesapeake Bay that are not Chessie,” Beck added. “Every time, we scrutinize them to see if it’s Chessie. We’re excited.”
Wildlife officials fell hard for Chessie when he surfaced in the Kent Narrows area of the bay in September 1994. Because he was hundreds of miles from his Florida habitat, in an area where water temperatures drop too low for manatees to survive, the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the U.S. Coast Guard went on high alert, threw out a net and pulled the 1,000-pound animal out.
Chessie was studied at the aquarium, fitted with a radio tag and flown to SeaWorld in Orlando, Beck said. He was released soon after in the Banana River near Cape Canaveral in Brevard County, Fla., to join about 5,000 manatees in the wild.
Manatees are marathon swimmers that can lumber about 50 miles a day. The last sighting of Chessie by researchers was after he swam through the Great Bridge Locks in Virginia in August 2001. Manatee sightings north of Virginia are rare, and the outcomes are often not good.
“We had one in Pennsylvania last year,” Beck said. “It was a carcass by the time we found it.” In the past two years, manatees were spotted as far north as Cape Cod, she said. One was rescued; the other died.