VIMS researchers find manatee in Chesapeake Bay

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VIMS Seagrass researcher Corey Holbert glanced into the waters right below the Coleman Bridge and spotted a manatee.

Scott Smith/Crown Pointe Marina.

Scott Smith/Crown Pointe Marina.

Holbert glanced into the waters of the VIMS Boat Basin where the basin’s access channel empties into the York River and spotted the a 6- to 8-foot-long manatee on Nov. 1.

“What in the world is that?” Holbert remembers thinking. “It went under water right after I first saw it, so at first glance I wasn’t sure what it was—a seal, a shark? I just had no idea.”

Researchers say manatees are normally found in the warmer waters of Florida and the Caribbean, and are rare visitors to the Chesapeake Bay, especially outside the summer months.

Holbert contacted VIMS Professor Robert JJ Orth, seagrass researcher Paul Richardson, and Ph.D. student AJ Johnson, who spent 20 minutes watching and filming the creature before it made its way into the York River.

Instead of the manatee taking a left-hand turn toward the Bay mouth and warmer, more southerly waters, it hung a right and began to swim even farther up the York River.

The last sighting of a live manatee in the Chesapeake region came in July 2016, when an animal was spotted near Rudee Inlet. The Bay’s most famous manatee is Chessie, a tagged and easily identified animal that first appeared in 1994 and was subsequently seen in 2001 and 2011.

Researchers believe that manatees may be visiting the Bay more regularly due to climate change and the Bay’s warming waters.