Zachary Mann writes on an interesting theory about the monster sightings off the U.S. Atlantic coast.
When I was very young I can remember my mother calling me into the living room of our first house because she wanted to give me something. It was a small newspaper clipping which was an article about the story of a supposed unknown aquatic monster having been sighted in and around the water ways of the Chesapeake Bay region and other surrounding bodies of what like the York River. I even remember when my Grandfather would take me out fishing, I’d tell him to be on the lookout for the beast, and he didn’t believe they existed, but he for the most part, humored a young excited kid. My mother knew, even then, that I was fascinated by strange creatures and thought I’d like it. I kept it and had it for many years, but I’m sad to say having moved several times over the course of my life, I seem to have lost it and, despite my attempts, have never found it. Even searching for a digital copy has been to no avail, mainly due to the facts of not knowing exactly which local paper it came from, nor the exact year, I was very young when it happened so you’ll have to forgive me on that one. Yet I do know which mysterious creature the article would have been on, our only resident large unknown river and sea monster, Chessie.
All up and down the entire Atlantic Sea Board, they are hundreds, if not thousands, of large unknown sea creatures, and one of the largest single concentrations of sightings comes from around the Virginia-Maryland region. One of the earliest recorded sightings of a creature in Virginia waters comes from 1846 when Captain Lawson reported seeing a bizarre creature with a small head between the points of Port Charles and Port Henry. Over the next century and a half more and more sightings come from both Maryland and Virginia. I’m not going to be covering every single reported sighting, just a few of them as they pertain to a specific aspect of the Chessie mystery. Specifically, how the creature relates to one kind of animal not normally found in the waters where it's most frequently sighted in, but one’s whose occasionally confirmed presence adds one more layer of possibility, confusion, and intrigue the legacy of Chessie.
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and while it touches parts of Pennsylvania and New York’s coast line, it is most usually associated with either parts of Virginia or Maryland. It connects many inland rivers and water ways to the open ocean, including the Potomac River - much more on that connection later. While the Bay is home to a wide verity of flora and fauna, there is one creature that while not native on a full time basis, does make headlines when ever one is seen, the West Indian Manatee. One of three known species of Manatee in the world, this large herbivore is most often associated with the warm coastal and inland waterways of the sunshine state, Florida. While sometimes they do appear offshore in Georgia and the Carolinas, this is usually as far north as they go, . However, as we shall soon see one particular Manatee never seemed to get the memo.
In July, 1994, a number of sightings of a strange kind of creature unlike anything in the native environment began to filter in from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. After several unconfirmed sightings it was determined the creature was in fact a West Indian Manatee. This instantly became big news among the general population and Manatee researchers alike. The media and public at large gave the friendly new visitor the name Chessie. Why Chessie? Well it was a strange creature in the Chesapeake Bay and it had the locations name in it. It may have also had to do with the fact Chessie was the name given to another far more mysterious alleged resident of the area, but more on that later. Over the rest of the summer Chessie continued to live comfortably in the area with sightings being common and he seemingly to be in good health. As fall rolled around however, many scientists began to become worried about Chessie. He showed no signs of migrating back to his much warmer native waters and they were worried the animal might not survive the far colder Maryland winter. The decision was made to catch Chessie for his own good.
On October, 1, 1994, Chessie was caught by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, consisting of members form Sea World and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, among others. He was flown to the Baltimore Aquarium and then to Sea World in Florida by the U.S. Coast Guard. After a few days of observation, he was determined to be in good health and was tagged for study before being released back into the wild near Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October, 7, 1994. Throughout the winter he traveled all across the state. Yet just on year later in July, 1995, he was back in the Bay. This time he didn’t stay there, oh no. He was off and boy did he do the grand tour. Soon he was sighted near Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Long Island Sound in New York, in New Haven, Connecticut, and finally Port Judith, Rhode Island. He has been documented as the longest traveled specimen of his kind. His most inland journey was far up the Potomac River, which plays a much more important role in our story later on. During his way back he lost his tracking device, but was confirmed to be sighted back in Florida, via markings on his tail, soon afterwards. The last confirmed sighting took place in August 2001, at the Great Bridge Locks in Virginia. Several other manatee sightings up north both before and after that date, including a suspected sighting of him written about in a 2011 Richmond Times Dispatch article, but none are verified to be him.
These rare, yet on record, occurrences of manatees so far North are undoubtedly the genesis of some Chessie sightings. For example, in March, 1980, a couple was at a waterfront restaurant located on the Appomattox River, just South of Richmond, when they noticed a 10-14 foot creature swimming through the water the likes of which they had never seen before. They kept their story to themselves for a while thinking none would believe them, but eventually the woman wrote to a Richmond newspaper with her story. She claimed the creature had a long undulating body and a reptile-like head. Now some of these features don’t conform strictly to a manatee, yet this could be a result of not having a good look or just her way of interpreting what she saw.
This coupled together with numerous other similar sightings have led some to speculate that Chessie, when it’s not a manatee, to be an escaped, released, or wandering giant snake such as an anaconda. You never want to say never to nature, as Chessie himself shows us, but a migrating anaconda is almost completely out of the question. As far as releases, they do happen, but that in no way explains the hundreds of consistent reports dating back over a century before such creatures where starting to be kept as pets. And while feral breeding populations occur, example the very serious problem of wild pythons in Florida, I don’t believe a tropical species of snake could survive for decades and breed when the waters and winters are much colder than at any point in the Amazon or any other of their tropical native habitats.
It would seems reasonable that a majority of the smaller alleged Chessie sightings are of wandering manatees. You could argue that they could still be of an unknown creature, after all if real, I doubt they would start their lives off as 30 foot ‘giants’, and that may be true. After all human women don’t give birth to full grown six foot offspring, imagine how painful that would be! That being said, these smaller creature sightings are so morphologically different from the larger ones it would seem unlikely they would so radically change from one form to another as they grow. The size and overall body shape of the smaller ones do however, conform quite well to manatees. That and coupled with the fact they are very rare, many lifelong residents would be very shocked and perplexed to seem them especially if at a distance or only part of the animal was visible for a brief moment.
Someday I may write an article detailing in depth more Chessie sightings that fit this giant snake mold, but for now what do we take away from our discussion here today? I think we as Cryptozoology researchers and enthusiasts need to be skeptical, but never dismissive. We need be rational, but never pigeonholed. We should be critical, but also cautious as it seems there is no one real answer to this or any of life’s big mysterious. As for Chessie, is it a monster or manatee? Seemingly the answer is both. Will we ever know all the creatures who swim our vast oceans, lakes, and rivers? No. But, will we ever be able to read in text books talking about nature fauna of the Chesapeake Bay which include information on visitors like manatees and other large (as of yet unclassified) marine visitors? Maybe, just maybe.
· Taylor, L. B. Monsters of Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Dominion. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2012. Print.