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Chessie the Manatee on a Comeback Tour After 5-Year Hiatus
Released: 9/25/2001

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Catherine Puckett 1-click interview
Phone: 707-442-1329

Cathy Beck
Phone: 352-372-2571

Jim Reid
Phone: 352-372-2571

Editors: For downloadable photographs of Chessie, please go to url http://www.fcsc.usgs.gov/

By fin and flipper -- this is a manatee that sure knows how to get around! After a five-year disappearance, Chessie, perhaps the most famous and well-traveled manatee along the U.S. Atlantic Coast, has been sighted again in coastal Virginia.

After first being radio-tagged and tracked by the manatee researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey in 1994, Chessie gained media fame in the summer of 1995 by swimming past the mid-Atlantic states, through New York City and yes, even by the Statue of Liberty, and all the way to Rhode Island, farther than any manatee had been known to venture. After returning to Florida for the winter, he again wandered north again as far as Virginia where he was last seen in 1996, according to USGS scientists.

Three weeks ago, Chessie was photographed in Great Bridge, Va., at the Great Bridge Locks. Two engineers, Joel Scussel and Rob Poyner, were working at the Great Bridge Locks when they noticed a manatee in the lock basin. Because manatees are only occasionally seen this far north, they notified Sue Barco, a marine mammal scientist at the Virginia Marine Science Museum, who brought her research team to the locks. While the manatee patiently cooled its flippers in the lock basin waiting for the gates to open, Barco, Poyner, and Scussel watched the manatee and photographed his distinctive scar pattern. Afterward, they opened the gates, and the manatee continued his trip south.

The photographs were sent to USGS manatee researchers, who used the manatee photo-identification catalog to match scar patterns and to excitedly confirm the traveler’s identity as Chessie.

Barco said that it was clear from the animal’s behavior that it had been through these or similar lock systems before. "But we didn’t think it was Chessie because of the new scars on his tail and back. But after getting the confirmation that it was Chessie, we are very happy to know he is doing well."

Chessie first gained fame in the fall of 1994 when he was sighted in the Maryland waters of Chesapeake Bay, considered far outside the normal winter range of manatees. The adult male manatee, now known as Chessie, was captured by the National Aquarium and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and returned by U.S. Coast Guard plane to Florida. Chessie was released into the Banana River near Kennedy Space Center, wearing a satellite-monitored radio tag attached to a harmless, pliable belt around the base of his tail.

USGS manatee biologist Jim Reid kept track of Chessie as he moved into southeastern Florida, and then in the spring of 1995, as he moved northward. By mid-July 1995, Chessie was again in Chesapeake Bay. Because the bay waters were warm, the manatee was not captured. Reid continued to track Chessie by using the signals emitted from his radio transmitter, through Delaware Bay and into salt marshes near Atlantic City, New Jersey and Connecticut, past the Statue of Liberty, and through Long Island Sound. Chessie stopped briefly to rest and feed along the way, but continued his northward movement until he reached Point Judith, Rhode Island, in mid-August, 1995.

As many a Rhode Island swimmer can attest, the Floridian-born Chessie found the waters a wee bit too cold and turned around to return to warmer waters. A week later, Chessie’s radio tag broke free in New Haven, Conn., but public sightings enabled the researchers to track Chessie’s whereabouts as he continued his journey south. In late September, Chessie passed through the Great Bridge Locks - the same place he was spotted several weeks ago - and then was seen in Florida waters near Jacksonville in mid-November.

Chessie wisely stayed in warmer Florida waters that winter, where he was sighted near Ft. Lauderdale in February 1996, and where researchers again attached a radio transmitter to the belt that he still wore. Once again, manatee scientists tracked Chessie’s movements until his transmitter was lost near Beaufort, NC. 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 USGS manatee researchers, but none of these sightings could be confirmed as Chessie. This time, though, researchers were able to positively identify Chessie through the USGS manatee photo-identification catalog, a computerized database of photographically documented manatees. Each manatee in the database is recognized by one or more unique features, most commonly the scars inflicted by non-lethal encounters with boats.

In 1994, scientists had photographed Chessie - and his unique markings and scars - before his release in Florida. USGS researchers Cathy Beck and Amy Teague were elated when they were able to identify Chessie from the photos - there was Chessie’s distinctive long gray scar on his back, with several small white spots apparent within the scar. Since then, said Beck, Chessie has also acquired tail mutilations as well, but these scars are not severe.

"By enabling researchers to individually identify Chessie and other manatees, the long-term photographic database documents movements, reproductive histories, and survival of these endangered mammals," Beck said.

Since Chessie’s noteworthy trips, more public sightings of manatees have occurred in northeastern states. USGS manatee scientists believe that Chessie’s annual migration 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 Bay, nicknamed "Chessie," date back throughout this century and possibly include manatee sightings that were not properly identified. Chessie was named after this purported sea monster.

Cooperation among members of the Marine Mammal Sighting Networks, oceanaria, government agencies and the public on Chessie’s migration has, said Reid, raised the public’s awareness of this unique endangered marine mammal. "Manatees," said Reid, "are long-lived and typically repeat established movement patterns. It’s likely that sightings of Chessie or other manatees will occur again in these northern areas."

For future sightings, the public should contact local wildlife authorities, who will get in touch with the USGS manatee team.

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