FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — A Florida manatee is making history this summer with a long-distance swim that has startled fishermen, boaters, and beachgoers as far north as Cape Cod and has sparked a deepening mystery as large as the Atlantic coast.
Ten-foot-long, 1,000-pound sea cows are common in many parts of Florida. The marine mammals are known to roam throughout the state's coastal areas, migrating to warmer water during cold snaps. But what would possess a manatee to undertake a 1,200-mile journey northward to the very edge of water warm enough to sustain its life?
Scientists don't know. But they are investigating whether the manatee may be the same animal that made a similar trip 11 years ago.
If that is the case, "Chessie" has just extended his prior distance record of a northward swim by a Florida manatee by nearly 50 miles.
Researchers with the Sirenia Project of the US Geological Survey say they are hoping that the manatee seen recently near Falmouth on Cape Cod and Warwick, R.I., is the same manatee they tracked in 1995. Similar manatee sightings were reported earlier this month in the Hudson River near New York City.
"At this point I can't say it's him," says Cathy Beck, a manatee researcher who maintains photographs of 2,000 of Florida's estimated 3,000 manatees. Researchers can identify individual manatees by the pattern of scars left from collisions with boat propellers.
Ms. Beck made a tentative identification of Chessie from a television film clip shot on Sunday by NBC 10 in Providence, R.I. The 90-second news story shows the manatee drinking fresh water from a drainage pipe at a marina in Warwick.
"That looks like Chessie's tail," Beck said, watching the video for the first time. But after more detailed examination, she says she's not so sure: "We just don't have enough information to confirm the identification one way or the other."
Chessie made it to Point Judith, R.I., in mid-August 1995 before encountering cold seas and heavy waves. The feat attracted international attention and raised awareness about the plight of endangered manatees.
Scientists had attached a tracking device to Chessie and monitored most of his 1995 trip. But the manatee has not been seen since 2001. "It is a wonder of nature that we have an individual who can make a trip that far north," says Jim Reid, who tracked Chessie in 1995 and is monitoring the current odyssey.
Researchers aren't discounting that more than one manatee may be touring the Northeast this summer. In 1998, they tracked a different manatee to eastern Long Island. But they say it's possible that all the sightings this summer are of the same animal. "Cape Cod, that is a new record," Mr. Reid says.
Manatees dine on sea grass and other aquatic plants. Restoration of the coastal environment in the Northeast has progressed to the point where a traveling sea cow could easily move from the manatee equivalent of one giant salad bar to another. They generally eat more than 100 pounds of vegetation a day and can travel 20 to 30 miles per day.
The primary limiting factor, scientists say, is cold water. Manatees prefer warm temperatures and cannot survive in water colder than 68 degrees.
Chessie got his name in 1994 when he lingered a little too long in the Chesapeake Bay. By October, researchers were worried that he wouldn't be able to make it far enough south to avoid the approaching cold weather. A rescue team captured the manatee and flew him by US Coast Guard plane to Florida. He was released near the Kennedy Space Center after being fitted with a radio tracking device.
Reid followed Chessie's travels south to Fort Lauderdale for the winter. Then he watched as Chessie headed north the next summer, back to the Chesapeake and eventually up to Rhode Island.
After turning south in mid-August, the radio tracking device broke free near New Haven, Conn. But sightings of Chessie continued in Virginia in late September and off Jacksonville, Fla., in mid-November.
Despite all the study, no one is sure why a manatee would make such a trip.
Some suggest that global warming has prompted him to seek out new areas. Others say he may be looking for female companionship. But others think he may just be a Magellan of manatees.
"There is a very good likelihood this is Chessie, and he is doing what he does," says Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, a Florida-based conservation group. "If nothing else, he is a great ambassador for his species."