Let's go back millions of years 10, maybe 14 million years, to the Miocene and Eocene epochs. What ultimately became the Chesapeake was then a shallow, subtropical sea, stretching along a sandy coast with barrier islands and embayments, perhaps like the Baja California today.
This nameless sea in the distant past was a calving ground for several species of cetaceans: baleen or filter-feeding whales, fish-capturing toothed whales, porpoise and even manatees. Their relatively defenseless young were easy prey for many species of sharks. Some sharks, like the giant Charcaradon megalodon, were 35 feet long with phalanxes of teeth, the largest of which reached 7 inches.
Shift scenes to the present where the eroding cliffs and shorelines of the modern Chesapeake still relinquish millions of fossil shark's teeth-and the ribs, vertebrae and other bones of those long extinct cetaceans. They've been the delight of children and of serious fossil collectors since the 19th century. But to early colonists, who had no concept of geologic time, these fossils, and the shells embedded in the cliffs were a great puzzlement.
"Within the shoares of our rivers, whole bancks of oysters and scallopps, which lye unopened and thick together, as if there had bene their natural bedd before the sea left them."
- George Percy
"Discourse of Virginia," 1606
Whales were an important resource in a world before oil wells and cheap petroleum supplies. Whale hunters took the rich, fatty insulating tissues surrounding the whales' bodies and "tryed" -melted in cauldrons-them to extract fine oils to be used for lubrication or to burn in lamps.
Apart from the occasional natural strandings, these marine mammals had to be hunted. However angrily we view whaling today, in the 16th and 17th centuries this fishery provided valuable products and was a true contest between species. It required great courage and respect to conquer these massive creatures in a small boat with simple, hand-thrown harpoon and lance.
John Smith's first sentence on marine living resources in the Chesapeake reads: "Of fish we were best acquainted with sturgeon, grampus (a small toothed whale -perhaps the pilot whale) porpoise, seals (and) stingrays whose tails are very dangerous."
The Virginia colonists were poor fishermen early on and had slim luck even feeding themselves, let alone whaling. After leaving Virginia, our resourceful explorer John Smith spent time in England but returned to the New World where he failed as a whaler in Latitude 43 degrees 39 minutes North, lamenting: "Had the fishing for whale proved as we expected, I (would have) stayed in the country..."
Later, some Chesapeake colonists began to take stranded whales successfully around the Bay mouth, trying out the blubber from whales towed into the bay and "flensed" or "cut out" in Virginia's creeks.
In 1692, Governor Copley of Maryland commissioned one Edward Green of Somerset County as a whaling officer to secure these "drift whales" and defend Maryland's interests against those of neighboring colonies. One whale that came ashore on Smith's Isle at Cape Charles in 1747 yielded 30 barrels of oil.
Cutting out a whale is dirty business and releases into the water immense amounts of blood and organic materials that consume life-giving oxygen and produce a terrible stench. Proceedings of the Middlesex Court in Virginia in 1698 forbade the killing of whales in Chesapeake Bay because the fishery wastes "caused great quantities of fish to poysoned and destroyed and the rivers made also noisome and Offensive." This was one of the Colonial government's first legal actions against water pollution in the Bay.
Rules notwithstanding, whales occasionally entered the Bay and nosed up into her tributaries. In 1746, a 54-footer was spied from a Scottish vessel lying off Jamestown. Pursuing it in their ship's boat, the mariners drove the poor beast ashore and killed it.
In 1751, the sloop "Experiment" was fitted out at Norfolk and in May the Virginia Gazette reported that she'd taken a valuable whale which was expected to "give Encouragement to the further Prosceution of the Design" and "will tend very much to the Advantage of the Colony."
The "Experiment" took another profitable six whales during the ensuing year, but historian Pierce Middleton indicates neither Maryland nor Virginia subsequently pursued any whale fishery.
While the ancient fossil manatees were gone millions of years before the colonists arrived, in 1676, Thomas Glover reported "a most prodigious Creature, much resembling a man" in the Rappahannock. It was most likely a manatee.
More recently, a manatee was sighted in August 1980 off the Georgetown Canoe Club in the District of Columbia. Caught in the Chesapeake by falling autumn temperatures, the poor creature was found two months later dead of "starvation and pneumonia" near Hampton City. In the past few years, "Chessie," a Florida manatee, has repeatedly visited the Bay and created much excitement during his cruises up-and down-the coast.
Sea turtles, mostly the loggerheads, but also Kemp's Ridley, and the occasional big leatherback have frequented the Bay for millennia, occasionally straying as far North as Hooper Straits or Calvert Cliffs. John White painted one of those, beautifully, in 1585-and he also painted both the diamondback terrapin and our familiar box turtle, calling it: "A land Tort(ise) w'ch the Sauages esteeme aboue all other Torts"
Though this is far north in their current range, loggerheads enter the Chesapeake in spring as the Bay's water warms. Even today, on Virginia's much-developed beaches, perhaps nine a year still dig nests and lay their eggs.
Sea turtles were popular quarry for sailing ship mariners long at sea without fresh meat and, turned on their backs, could be carried alive, if miserable, on deck quite some time, if occasionally sluiced down with seawater.
Archaeological excavations at the recently discovered original site of Jamestown's fortifications turned up the remains of a sea turtle feast by those recently arrived colonists.
Our attitudes toward all the cetacean-marine mammals-and at least the sea-going turtles have changed from perceiving them as quarry to asking how we can help them prosper. This is an attitude we would do well to offer to other species, and other parts of the Bay's natural infrastructure, which we have abused or ignored these nearly 400 years.
Dr. Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and estuarine ecologist.