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Chessie's Northern Quest For What - Sea Bagels?

Florida manatee visits cold N.Y., Connecticut waters, leaves experts befuddled

By Ron Scherer / August 16, 1995



NEW YORK

DEAR fellow manatees,

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Just a quick postcard. Last year Chesapeake Bay. This year Long Island Sound. Who knows, next year, I might vacation in Maine. Your wandering friend, Chessie. P.S.: Everyone is complaining about the heat, but it seems fine to me.

* * *

Well, maybe manatees don't send postcards. But, until this year, they also didn't spend their summers in northern waters.

Last year, Chessie, the meandering manatee spent its summer munching sea grasses in the Chesapeake. Now, it seems intent on spending August in the shallows along Long Island Sound.

The marine mammal's range has surprised marine biologists who keep watch over manatees, a federally protected species with only 2,000 animals left. Manatees - which look like walruses, minus the tusks - normally spend their summers in northern Florida or southern Georgia. A few manatees have been spotted as far north as Virginia.

Then last year, a male manatee was spotted in the Chesapeake. After he was caught, the manatee - now named Chessie - was flown back to Broward County, Fla. This time, however, he was equipped with a radio transmitter so the National Biological Service (NBS) in Gainesville, Fla., could track him.

After spending the winter like many other tourists in Ft. Lauderdale, Chessie then swam to Cumberland Sound in southern Georgia, where many other manatees migrate for the summer.

But Georgia was not on Chessie's mind. By the Fourth of July, Chessie had made it past Virginia. The manatee then swam across the Delaware and up the New Jersey coast. Like a good manatee, it did not stop at Atlantic City.

By last week, the well-traveled manatee was cruising up the East River, past the United Nations. New Yorkers, used to almost anything, didn't blink when Chessie showed up outside the city's jail on Rikers Island. The manatee was not even invited to be a guest on the David Letterman Show. Now it is eating Connecticut sea grass.

''We don't know what he is doing up here,'' says Jim Reid, a biologist with the NBS. He estimates the manatee, which is also called a sea cow, has swum more than 2,000 miles on his summer vacation.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to monitor the animal's activities and movements as well as watching the water temperture in the Sound. Because manatees are a tropical marine species, they cannot survive for long in cool waters.

Although Chessie got a free ride back to Florida last year, Mr. Reid says the government would prefer to see him swim back on his own. ''That would be a lot easier on us and it would be a lot easier and safer for him,'' explains Reid, since the animals become stressed when captured.

To avoid a media stampede, the government is refusing to pinpoint the manatee's exact location.

''Everyone wants to see him, but we can't have that,'' says Reid, who planned to have a press conference in Connecticut yesterday.

The NBS is discouraging the public from trying to find the manatee to prevent harrassment. Reid says the animal, which has successfully navigated in and out of various inlets, has been very good at avoiding boats.

''Man is the only problem for manatees, they have no natural predators,'' he says.

If anyone does see Chessie, there is a hot line for sightings: 1-410-576-8723. That is the phone number for the National Aquarium, which keeps track of stranded or unusual marine mammals.