Monday, August 17, 2009

Manatees in the Chesapeake

From the Washington Post (Sept. 26, 2008):
Two West Indian manatees were sighted in a Chesapeake Bay tributary near Baltimore this week in a rare appearance of Florida's beloved sea cow in Mid-Atlantic waters.

Gail Hill, who lives in the Baltimore County suburb of Essex, spotted the bulbous creatures about 6:15 p.m. Tuesday while she was tossing white bread and potato rolls into Norman Creek for the local mallards and Canada geese. At the end of the dock, something wide and gray came to the surface.

"At first, it looked like a big barrel popped up, and then it went under again," Hill, 57, said yesterday. She thought, at first, it might be a large carp. Then, noting a bump in the middle of its back, she thought she might be seeing the blowhole of a porpoise.

Then the animal raised its head to breathe.

"It's got a bulby-looking nose . . . almost like that Michelin tire commercial" mascot, she said. Another soon appeared by its side. A neighbor identified the animals right away: "He said, 'That's a manatee.' "

During that encounter, first reported by the Baltimore Sun, Hill snapped several pictures. Yesterday, the manatee expert at the National Aquarium in Baltimore said the sighting seemed legitimate.

"It is, more than likely, a manatee," Jennifer Dittmar said. One clue, she said, was the bump on the back. It's not a blowhole, she said, but a barnacle, which manatees often pick up in their slow-motion wanderings.

Manatees, docile vegetarians, have been declared an endangered species; collisions with boats are a serious threat. Their population is estimated between 3,000 and 3,500, and their home territories are Florida and the Caribbean.

But some have been spotted around the Chesapeake. The most famous was Chessie, a manatee that visited several times in the mid-1990s and was named for its resemblance to the bay's mythical sea monster.

Dittmar said the Baltimore aquarium receives three or four reports of sightings every year -- usually in August or September, after the bay's water has been warmed all summer. She asked anyone who spots a manatee to call the aquarium scientists' pager at 410-373-0083.

Scientists say that to travel north, the mammals use the Intercoastal Waterway, which can offer a buffet of underwater grasses, or they traverse the open Atlantic Ocean. It's not clear why they come.

"I don't know why they do it," said Cathy Beck, a scientist who studies manatees for the U.S. Geological Survey. She said she didn't know if climate change was playing a role. Beck said her current concern is whether these roaming manatees will find their way back south before the winter, because they cannot stand water colder than 68 degrees.

In Essex, Hill said the two manatees vanished when she and a neighbor got into a boat to follow them. "I've been looking ever since," she said.

"They're not the prettiest faces," she said. "But there's something lovable about them."

--David A. Fahrenthold, "Manatee pair make trip north to frolick in Md. tributary"

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