Over Labor Day weekend, I visited Maryland’s Eastern Shore and did a little kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay. Being a cryptozoology enthusiast, I couldn’t help but think of Chessie, the Chesapeake Bay Monster while I was on the water. Unfortunately, I saw no sign of the beast, but many others have. The following is an excerpt from my first book:
The Chesapeake Bay, bordered by Virginia to the south and Maryland to the north, has a history of sightings of unusual creatures. The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary, the largest estuary in the United States; about half of its water is salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. The bay is bordered by the Delmarva Peninsula to the east, and the continental mainland to the west.
Dubbed the Chesapeake Bay Monster, and also affectionately referred to as “Chessie,” an unusual creature has reportedly been seen in the bay by residents of Maryland and Virginia for many years. The animal is serpent-like in appearance, and between 25 and 40 feet in length. Some reports state that Chessie has flippers attached to its body, while other accounts indicate that Chessie has a featureless body. Some have claimed that the movements of the animal in the water resembles a sine curve; an undulating body is a commonality among many of the cryptids covered in this book. Chessie has many of the similarities and descriptions of the typical serpentine sea/lake monster, both in appearance and in the way that it moves.
Reports of an unusual creature in the waters of the Chesapeake date back to at least 1846 when Captain Lawson spotted a creature with a small head and sharp protrusions jutting from its back. Captain Lawson was off the coast of Virginia, between Cape Henry on the mainland, and Cape Charles on the Delmarva Peninsula.1
From the 1930s through the present day, Chessie sightings have become somewhat of a regular occurrence. In 1934, Francis Klarrman and Edward J. Ward were fishing near Baltimore when they observed something in the water, about 75 yards away, which appeared to be floating. Upon further examination, the pair realized that what they were seeing was some sort of an animal. The portion of the creature that was visible above the water was about 12 feet long and black in color. The creature’s head was shaped like that of a horse and was about the size of a football.2
Helicopter pilot Walter L. Myers wrote a letter to Maryland State Senator George W. Della in 1963 in which he declared, “I assure you that Chessie exists.” Myers claimed to have spotted Chessie while flying over the Bush River, a tidal estuary in Hartford County, Maryland.3
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw an uptick in the number of Chessie sightings. In fact, Chessie would become a household name around the bay, and receive attention from newspapers nationwide. In 1978, by the month of June, about 30 people had reportedly witnessed some sort of long, ugly creature in the bay.4 One of the most often cited reports also occurred in 1978. Retired CIA employee, Donald Kyker, and his neighbors, the Smoot family, reportedly saw four creatures that match Chessie descriptions about 75 yards offshore.5
In June 1980, Godwin Muse, a farmer from Westmoreland County, Virginia, saw a 14 foot snake with an undulating body in the Potomac River. Less than two weeks later, Chessie was spotted about 15 miles downstream from the Muse sighting by G. F. Green, his family, and a friend. They saw a creature with 3–4 humps swimming smoothly and rapidly. The animal was about 25 feet long and 5–6 inches in diameter.6
On Memorial Day, 1982, video evidence for the existence of Chessie was obtained by Robert Frew. Frew captured about five minutes of film, two of which show a snake-like creature approximately 30 feet in length. At the request of Mike Frizzell of the Enigma Project, who had been engaged in the study and investigation of the Chessie phenomenon, scientists from the Smithsonian Institute viewed the tape. Unsurprisingly they were intrigued, but very noncommittal in reaching conclusions. Later, the video was graphically enhanced by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Unfortunately, though, funding for the project dried up and work on the tape ceased.7
A Maryland Senate Resolution
As a result of legislation passed at the state and local level, many cryptids enjoy a protected status. Most notably, the Lake Champlain Monster, or Champ, has been given protected status in both Vermont and New York. The Arkansas Legislature created the White River Monster Refuge in 1973 to provide a safe haven for the legendary Whitey.
In response to letters and communications from constituents for more than 20 years concerning Chessie, Maryland State Senator George W. Della drafted a resolution in 1984 to “encourage serious scientific inquiry by the state into Chessie and other unusual animals in the Chesapeake Bay.”8 Della was unsure about the existence of Chessie, but believed in the possibility. Moreover, there was enough eyewitness reports and concern from the citizenry to warrant a serious investigation into the matter. More politicians and people, in general, should shrug off the ridicule and take the senator’s approach.
What is Chessie, and how can the phenomenon be explained? Among the most popular, and perhaps most reasonable theories to explain sightings of mysterious creatures in the Chesapeake is that Chessie is a wayward manatee. Although Florida is their home, manatees do frequent the Chesapeake fairly regularly during the summer months and feed on the Bay’s abundance of aquatic grasses. Manatees, also called sea cows, eat up to 10 percent of their body weight in a day.
Just this summer, during the month of July, a manatee was spotted in St. Mary’s County, Maryland near St. George Island. The group Maryland Hunters posted pictures of the manatee on their Facebook page.9 Several local media outlets covered the story.
A manatee that was named Chessie visited the Chesapeake Bay several times over two decades, with the first recorded sighting in 1994. The manatee had a distinctive scar, over 12 inches in length running along its left side making the animal easy to recognize. Chessie was captured and outfitted with a radio transmitter—a device that enabled biologists to track its movements. Chessie was feared dead after the last sighting occurred in Virginia waters in 2001. However, after a lengthy absence Chessie reappeared in Calvert County, Maryland in 2011.10
Manatees are large mammals that reach monstrous proportions—not 25 feet in length as many Chessie eyewitnesses have reported, but they can easily reach 10 feet in length and weigh up to a ton. Manatees have gray skin with sparse, thick hair. They also have large tails shaped like a fan.
Obviously, the characteristics of a manatee do not fit the serpentine descriptions of Chessie; still, manatees might explain some sightings. The 1934 sighting near Baltimore comes to mind; the creature appeared to float and was about 12 feet in length—this report could be reasonably explained by a manatee.
A theory has been proposed that adequately explains the serpentine descriptions of Chessie; the creature is a giant snake—more specifically, an anaconda. In the early 1900s, there were ships from South America carrying cargo to Baltimore that reportedly had anacondas living in the hulls to control rat populations. Could Chessie have descended from these snakes? When asked, John Marriner, head of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science ichthyology department said, “I would have to say that’s a valid possibility.”11
Could some of these giant serpents have escaped old, decommissioned ships sitting in the harbor and established a small, breeding population? An intriguing thought, but the possibility brings questions to mind. How could these gargantuan snakes survive the cold winters of the mid-Atlantic region? If there were anacondas which were strong enough to survive the winter months, could the process of natural selection yield cold-resistant anacondas in subsequent generations? It sounds unlikely, but is it possible?
Dr. Joseph Cooney, who directed the University of Maryland’s marine biology laboratory on Solomon’s Island, was interviewed in 1978 for a newspaper article about Chessie. Cooney said that he does not doubt that people are seeing something in the Chesapeake. However, he believes that the existence of a cryptid is highly unlikely. Cooney prefers a more mundane explanation. He thinks that most sightings can be attributed to otters or porpoises.12
In the same article, the director of the Calvert Marine Museum, Dr. Ralph Eshelman, had an interesting take on the Chessie phenomenon. He believes that some sightings might actually be rays. He said, “I’ve seen 50 rays with their tails raised stirring up a boil in the water and it looks very strange.”13 This would indeed be a strange sight, and could certainly be mistaken for a cryptid or other strange phenomena. However, you have to think that the event described by Eshelman would be quite rare to see—maybe even as rare as a cryptid sighting!
The Washington Post ran a light-hearted piece that suggested an ordinary eel, common to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, underwent some sort of genetic mutation. The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, near Lusby, Maryland in Calvert County is convenient to point to as a source for causing ghastly mutations on an eel, either through nuclear waste or radiation from the plant itself.
Whatever Chessie is, whatever is behind the phenomenon, one thing is certain—Chessie has left its mark on the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding region. Maybe someday the riddle will be solved, but until then, the occasional sighting—and the accompanying speculation, is sure to continue.
- Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. (New York, N.Y.: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003).
- Matthew Lake. “Bizarre Beasts.” In Weird Maryland: Your Travel Guide to Maryland’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, edited by Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran. (New York: Sterling Pub., 2006), 68-69.
- Lake, Weird Maryland: Your Travel Guide to Maryland’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. 68.
- Richard Lyons. “Chessie Sightings Are a Monster of a Claim.” St. Petersburg Times, October 21, 1978.
- Coleman and Huyghe, The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep.
- “Chessie Is Back in the Potomac.” The Spartanburg Herald, June 26, 1980.
- Lake, Weird Maryland: Your Travel Guide to Maryland’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, 69.
- “Manatee Spotted in Md. Tributary.” WTOP. July 16, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://wtop.com/maryland/2015/07/manatee-spotted-in-marylands-chesapeake-bay/.
- Steve Kilar and Timothy B. Wheeler. “Chessie the Manatee Pays Return Visit to Chesapeake Bay.” The Baltimore Sun. July 15, 2011. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2011-07-15/features/bs-gr-manatee-20110715_1_florida-manatee-chessie-manatee-first.
- Spartanburg Herald, “Chessie Is Back in the Potomac.”
- Lyons, “Chessie Sightings Are a Monster of a Claim.”