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Whales in the Chesapeake: a sign of hope and recovery, or a sign of trouble?

Early this year, two watermen in separate boats were headed home to Smith Island when an astonishing sight evoked tales handed down from their forefathers a century ago.

One of the islanders, known for his sobriety and churchgoing, blurted on the marine radio, the party telephone line for that region: "I seen a . . . a whale!"

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The other waterman, not known to share his neighbor's virtues, answered on the radio and sounded relieved: "I seen a whale too, but I was afraid if I told, everybody'd just say, 'There he goes again.' "

That may have been the first sighting of the pair of humpbacks that stayed in the Chesapeake from early March through mid-April. Measuring nearly 35 feet and weighing 20-40 tons, the giant mammals ranged as far north as the Bay Bridges.

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There was speculation that they were sick and disoriented, and would strand themselves in the estuary's extensive shallows. But biologists who watched the whales said they appeared to be following large schools of bait fish, probably menhaden, and exhibited the "textbook feeding behavior of healthy animals."

To some watermen, the whales are a sign the bay is coming back to health. Certainly, it's exciting to think of enormous, exotic creatures gliding through the Chesapeake as perhaps they once did.

Was the visitation a once-in-a-lifetime aberration? Or the start of a new era?

An even larger whale of unknown type steamed up the bay briefly in 1991. Although world populations of humpbacks are only 10 per cent of pre-whaling levels, they and many kindred species of marine mammals are beginning to respond to years of concerted international protection.

L Many people believe dolphins, too, are returning to the bay.

"I think we're seeing an expansion of all kinds of marine mammals along the East Coast," says William P. Jensen, fisheries director of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

Other experts agree. "Once you leave whales and dolphins alone, which is what we've done for 20 years now, they may lose their fear of human contact and begin to visit places like the Chesapeake," says Craig Van Note, executive vice president of MONITOR, a national consortium of 35 marine mammal and animal welfare groups.

It is also possible, given the depleted state of some oceanic fish stocks, that marine mammals are having to forage for their dinner in more places, including Chesapeake Bay, Mr. Van Note speculates.

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Whatever the reasons, wouldn't it be great to see more whales in the bay?

Maybe not.

As much as we admire the natural world and lament the decline of wild creatures, our tolerance is less than we might want to admit for sharing space with those species so bold as to actually make a comeback.

The comebacks are happening already, in places as unlikely as suburban Maryland, and to an extent that surprises even the most hopeful wildlife managers.

But the return of the natives is not always accompanied by applause.

If I knew a young person who wanted a career combining the social sciences with the outdoors, I would recommend a dual major in counseling people and managing white-tailed deer.

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The white-tail makes me think that conflict resolution among the higher and lesser animals will be a growth field of employment.

Reduced at the turn of the century to less than half a million animals, deer in North America now number perhaps 25 million.

Herds in Maryland have tripled during the last decade, and the fastest growth in numbers has been within the fastest-suburbanizing counties.

The jostling between animals and us has grown apace. Deer are ravaging gardens and landscaped yards and college campuses; carrying ticks that spread Lyme disease; making night driving a hazard; and turning up in schoolyards and urban streets.

And deer may be only the vanguard. Black bears are padding into suburban New Jersey, within 12 miles of Manhattan, and denning beneath vacation home decks in Pennsylvania's Poconos.

Recently, a young black bear -- they're making a comeback in Western Maryland -- wandered across the intersection of I-70 and the Baltimore Beltway.

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The wild turkey, down to less than 30,000 nationwide in 1900, now is at an estimated four million gobblers, and is showing up in backyards across the U.S. with some regularity.

Coyotes, which have been expanding their range eastward for years, are now moving from Virginia and Pennsylvania into rural parts of Maryland.

Here's a warning to residents who are thinking of having fat old Tabby declawed to protect the furniture: coyotes prey on house cats.

Many Canadian geese, whose wild honking in flight thrills us fall and spring, from Labrador to North Carolina, are ceasing to migrate and now occupy golf courses and parks year round. As much as 10 per cent of the East Coast's goose population now follows such sedentary patterns.

Why the changes by bird and beast? The factors include protective laws, habitat restoration, an extraordinary string of warm winters, and the genetic adaptability of the species involved.

As our own race relentlessly expands, it seems as if wildlife is invading our backyards, when in fact it is we who invade theirs.

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In creating suburbia, we have often fashioned the perfect "cover" for those species like deer that can adapt to it, because the only remaining large predator, the human hunter, finds himself no longer welcome in such densely settled communities.

Which brings us back to the whales.

The new federal recovery plan for humpbacks envisions an ultimate population of about 65,000. No one thinks that likely soon, and some say it is impossible. It would amount to a sixfold increase in the species, and perhaps humpbacks would become regular bay visitors.

You might think that the Chesapeake, which covers 2,500 square miles, can accommodate all comers. But commercial crabbers now put nearly a million crab pots in the bay each summer; that's a million lines and a million corks for a whale to snag.

Also, pleasure boats on the bay have increased from 120,000 to nearly 300,000 in the last 25 years. As federally protected species, whales take up more space than even their large bodies might suggest. Boats must give them wide berth, or face substantial fines for harassment.

And whales, of course, have colossal appetites. A humpback consumes up to 2 tons of fish per day. Being baleen whales, which strain their food from the water, humpbacks do not eat large fish, such as striped bass or bluefish, but would compete with them for bait fish. You can bet that whales would get some blame for every problem, including oyster shortages.

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In other words, having two whales -- or half a dozen -- in the bay would be thrilling and welcome. But 10 or 20? At some point, the cheering would die down.

We're just beginning to learn how to live peaceably with the animals that seem to be learning, better than we dreamed, how to live with us. And the line between initial sighs of wonder and raging at the damned pests is still a thin one, quickly crossed.



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