Chessie: Chesapeake by choice

Welcome back, old friend.

In a summer of discontent across the United States from the record heat wave that's plagued much of the country to the icy deficit reduction talks in Washington, it's good to see a familiar (and might we add unflappable) figure has returned to the Land of Pleasant Living.

Let us rejoice in the return of Chessie, the celebrity manatee recently sighted in Calvert County. Thanks to Morgan State University's Estuarine Research Center, the 1,200-pound marine mammal has been positively identified as none other than the one first seen in the Chesapeake Bay 17 years ago.

Back in 1994, Chessie's first appearance caused such an uproar — and raised such breathless concern that he wouldn't survive as local water temperatures dropped in the fall — that he was "rescued" and air-lifted back to his native Florida on a U.S. Coast Guard C-130. Before his release, the manatee was fitted with no fewer than three radio collars, and scientists puzzled how the animal could have wandered so far from home.

Of course, that was before Chessie swam all the way to Rhode Island the following year and was spotted back in the Sassafrass River on the Eastern Shore in 2001. Turns out, some manatees just like to wander north once in a while (although most members of the species draw the line at North Carolina).

Chessie has long since lost his radio collars and hadn't been seen in the past decade. As researchers estimate he's more than 20 years old (and the average manatee in the wild might live half that long), some people might be forgiven for assuming the worst.

The lesson in this: Never underestimate the staying power a Florida senior or the lure of the Chesapeake Bay.

The manatee's return to Maryland hasn't caused anything close to the public uproar that his first appearance touched off. Apparently, swimming 900 miles on one's own is a big deal the first time you do it but not so much the second and really old hat by the third.

It may also have something to do with the fact that Chessie isn't exactly the cutest animal in the world. The "sea cow" will never replace the bottlenose dolphin in the hearts of Flipper-loving children or inspire horror movies like Great White sharks. The big, hulking, endangered plant-eaters are loveable in their own, less-obvious ways.

Nevertheless, in this red-hot season of quarreling and discomfort, his quiet contentment seems all the more appealing. Budget battles and a slow economy, a college tuition referendum, government cutbacks, the Orioles and other natural disasters, Chessie is oblivious to it all.

Perhaps he might be featured in Maryland tourism commercials. Nobody had to buy Chessie a tank full of gasoline to lure him to our waters as an Ocean City councilman is doing. No demands from the manatee for lower taxes or government subsidies to get his business. Apparently, the Chesapeake Bay's not gotten too polluted for his liking either.

Rather, it's a tacit endorsement of Maryland in summer — heat, humidity, and Code Red air pollution alerts included. Fly him back to the Sun Belt? We should be flying him back to Maryland each summer when the waters are warm enough to support his wanderings.

In the meantime, let's just leave him alone, let his stay be as peaceful as possible and allow him to enjoy his underwater grazing. Contentment like Chessie's has become too great a rarity — particularly this close to the nation's capitol — for it to be intruded upon.

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