No, that’s not a mermaid.
Environmental officials say a manatee has been spotted basking in the warm waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network confirmed the sighting over the weekend on St. Mary’s River near where the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay converge.
Lower Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said the river’s salinity this year has been unusually high, attracting dolphins, bullsharks, skate and crabs. He nearly forgot manatees have been known to pass through these waters, too.
“It’s an amazing area that’s part of the Chesapeake Bay,” Naujoks said. “It’s not surprising that we have abundant wildlife coming in and feeding and breeding and spending time in these waters.”
Still, manatee sightings are so uncommon that Marylanders sometimes struggle to identify the barrel-chested animal with whiskers and a pizza-pan tail, said Jennifer Dittmar, director of animal rescue for the National Aquarium. The aquarium also received a call to its hotline on Saturday reporting the manatee.
It’s one of the few marine animals that can go between fresh, brackish or salt water — though temperatures should be at least 68 degrees for them to thrive, Dittmar said. Manatees are typically found in waterways around Florida, but have been known to wander north during summer months to the Chesapeake Bay over the years.
A young manatee named “Ilya” was spotted in 2009 in a marina near Havre de Grace, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time. Another Florida manatee named “Chessie” — after one of Maryland’s favorite cryptids — has enjoyed visiting the Chesapeake Bay since as far back as 1994. He is credited with helping the Maryland Department of Natural Resources develop the first federal set of protocols for northern-bound manatee strandings and rescues.
Manatees have been venturing out of Florida waters more frequently in recent years, but the reason why is not always clear, Dittmar said. The mammals are particularly susceptible to red algae blooms, and ocean water temperatures in their natural habitat are on the rise thanks to climate change. A buoy in Florida’s Manatee Bay recorded temperatures of 100.2 and 101.1 degrees in July.
Still, manatees, which are herbivores, could be attracted to places in the bay where they can find an abundance of tasty seagrasses to feed on.
The grasses found in the Chesapeake have been thriving in recent years. A July report produced by the Chesapeake Bay Program estimates that underwater grasses increased about 12% in 2022. Scientists credited the improvement to below-average rainfall and cooler summer temperatures associated with the La Niña climate phenomenon, which features stronger surface winds across the Pacific Ocean and cooler conditions.
Manatees are considered a threatened species and are federally protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection and the Endangered Species acts. Florida also regulates boating speed zones to protect the slow-moving manatee and its habitat.
Manatee management falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, Dittmar said. Federal authorities have occasionally arranged for distressed manatees to be captured and returned to Florida.
That’s exactly what happened to Chessie in October of 1994, when the bay’s temperatures rapidly dropped into the 60s and cold-stunned him. Authorities eventually arranged for the U.S. Coast Guard to fly him back down to Florida. A rescue operation for any manatee remaining in the Chesapeake Bay this fall would likely be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dittmar said.
So what do you do if you see a manatee in Maryland waters?
“I would love if I came across a manatee, so definitely enjoy it,” Dittmar said. “But make sure your vessel is in neutral and slow down until the animal passes.”
Experts also recommend taking photos and video of the manatee in order to help agencies identify whether it’s a known animal. Sightings can be reported to Maryland Department of Natural Resources at 1-800-628-9944 or to the National Aquarium, which maintains a hotline at 410-576-3880.
Still, Dittmar recommends waiting a few hours to post photos of a manatee online. “If the animal is in a marina, we don’t want people to flock to it in real time,” she said.
Be like the sauntering sea cow and take your time.
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Jennifer Dittmar’s surname.