I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland, between Washington D.C. and Annapolis. That meant that I lived within a half hour’s drive of the Chesapeake Bay, as well as four of the 150+ rivers that flow into it. My parents and I would occasionally go sailing, renting a boat for a few days out of Solomons Island at the mouth of the Patuxent River, or from Rock Hall on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I hunted for fossils along the shore at Calvert Cliffs, and dug my toes into the beach at Sandy Point, right under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I ate steamed Maryland blue crabs smothered in Old Bay seasoning every summer, and when I was old enough, drank cheap beer to go with them. Just writing about the crabs now is making me hungry. As a child, I attended summer camps and went on field trips to learn about the Bay and local wildlife; as an adult, I led those trips and helped teach new generations.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the Chesapeake area, the northern half of the Bay sort of splits Maryland into two chunks: the Eastern Shore and the Western Shore (although most of the west side of the Bay isn’t really a shore). The Bay stretches from Havre de Grace, northeast of Baltimore, down to the bottom of the DelMarVa (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia) Peninsula and Norfolk, Virginia, where it connects with the Atlantic Ocean. Those 150+ rivers I mentioned pour fresh water from six surrounding states into the bay, where it mixes with Atlantic saltwater to make brackish water. It's the largest estuary in the United States.
Estuaries (semi-protected bodies of brackish water) are extremely important for marine biodiversity and coastal ecology. A huge myriad of ocean-dwelling animals seek out protected bays for refuge from the open sea. Many creatures can only reproduce or raise young in brackish water, including our famous Maryland blue crabs. Because of the ebb and flow of fresh and saltwater, nutrients are cycled and waste is removed quickly, which makes for healthy and extremely biodiverse ecosystems made up of sea plants and algae, plankton, shellfish, crustaceans, fish of all shapes and sizes (including sharks), mollusks, birds, and sometimes even marine mammals. The Chesapeake Bay is relatively shallow in most places, so sunlight can reach underwater plants, which are also fed by the nutrients delivered by the rivers. The plants grow fast and thick, and can support huge amounts of life. There are countless wetlands all around the Bay, and they also support huge communities of amphibians, birds, fish, and invertebrates, while also serving as a protective barrier from floods and storms. The Chesapeake region is also a major stopover point for several species of migrating birds.
When European migrants settled around the Chesapeake in the 17th and 18th centuries, they quickly realized how abundant resources were. Fish were so plentiful that they could be scooped out of the Potomac River in a frying pan, and millions of oysters kept the water clear. But as more and more people moved into the area to take advantage of this bounty, the bounty decreased. Fish, oysters, crabs, clams, and mussels were overfished. Farmers dumped fertilizers and chemical nutrients into the Bay, which caused huge algae blooms that cut off light to other marine plants and choked out dozens of species. Major cities with lots of industrial pollution grew up in the Chesapeake watershed – Washington, Baltimore, Richmond. In the late 1970’s, the Bay was in such bad shape that the US Congress funded research to determine the areas that needed immediate attention. By the time I was born in 1992, there was an agreement in place to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the Bay by at least 40%. Now, thanks to strict regulations and other conservation efforts, oyster and crab populations are starting to come back, and local farmers and industries are more responsible. There are dozens of educational programs in the region that focus on the Bay and the rivers. Things are getting better. But the Chesapeake is still nowhere near as healthy and productive as it once was.
Even so, I still got to see quite a lot of cool wildlife growing up. My favorites were the great blue herons and the white egrets, which we would see wading along the banks of rivers and in little inlets. Sometimes I would even see them from the Metro, the commuter train going in and out of Washington. In cold, wet, windy weather they would sort of hunker down and floof up to keep warm. But when they’re fishing, they elegantly wade through the shallows and sort of snake their heads around until they spot a fish. Then they freeze, and then suddenly lunge forward and come up with a fish or a frog. A heron or an egret in flight looks like a pterosaur. There are ospreys too, and sometimes bald eagles. When you’re out on the water and there’s good light, sometimes you can see huge schools of stingrays, pods of dolphins, pulsating jellyfish, or the occasional swimming crab. There are also tons of wetland areas near my home, if you know where to look. I used to ride my bike out to the nearest pond, where I would watch the turtles, frogs, and crayfish. In some places, if you come at the right time of day and you’re very lucky, you might see a muskrat.
Visitors to the US or the Capitol region would probably mostly overlook most of Maryland. Half the time when I talk to non-Americans, they’ve barely even heard of my state. But if you like wildlife and nature, and you care about biodiversity, the Chesapeake area is well worth a visit. Bring your camera, and an appetite for adventure… and seafood.
If you want to learn more about Bay restoration, or contribute to conservation efforts, check out the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.