The Chesapeake Bay

Kitaro : "Island of Life"

1 Introduction

The very words, Chesapeake Bay, evoke a kaleidescope of images, place names, and folklore. It is the nation's largest estuary, a place where salt water from the ocean meets fresh water from rivers, and its impressive stature is reflected in the early names that paid the Bay tribute: "Great Waters", "Mother of Waters", and "Great Shellfish Bay". Throughout history , the Chesapeake has played an integral role in the lives of its people. If you were a Susquehannock Indian living in the early 1600's, the Bay was a mystery - both a source of edible delights and a pathway for your adversary, the Piscataways. If you were a soldier in the War of 1812, you might have fought some bloody battles on its waters. And if you were a coffee merchant in Baltimore in the early 1900's, you very likely depended on the arrival of "The Josephine" for your livelihood.

Indeed, the Chesapeake Bay and its complex ecosystem defy easy description and understanding. From its origins at Cooperstown, New York to its mouth in Southern Virginia, one can witness geographical and biological diversity to match the wide spectrum of cultures that exist here: Amish farmers, government workers in the Nation's Capital, sailors on a weekend excursion in Norfolk, sixth- generation watermen from Tangier Island and Smith Island whose trace of Elizabethan accent confirms their Cornish heritage. This fact sheet can only give you a taste of the Bay's history, and ecology.

1 Geology and Geography

Geologically speaking, Chesapeake Bay is very young. It was created by the death of the last Ice Age, some 12-18,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated and the polar ice caps shrank, the huge volume of melting ice caused sea levels to rise. The rising ocean in turn engulfed the coast and flooded the river valley of the ancient Susquehanna river, creating the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay we know today is nearly 200 miles long, fed by 48 major rivers and 100 small tributaries draining a 64,000 square mile basin.

Saltwater mixes into the Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Freshwater flows from the Bay's tributary rivers, with about 50 percent coming from the Susquehanna. Saltwater is heaver than freshwater, so it tends to "creep" up the Bay along the bottom while the freshwater flows down from the tributaries on the surface. As a result the Chesapeake ranges from totally freshwater areas in the North and upstream in its rivers, to areas near the Bay's mouth that are about as salty as the ocean. Thus the Bay can support both fresh and marine life forms, plus those that can tolerate fluctuating salinity levels.

The variety of conditions supports some 2,700 species. All are linked in a complex, interdependent web of producers and consumers. From the eagle's huge nest high in a wetland tree to the worms in the Bay's bottom sediments, from the microscopic free-floating plants to the pine trees along the Shenandoah, all have a part in maintaining this system's balance.

1 History

Where did it all begin? Historians disagree on who was the first European to travel into the Bay's mouth. Some accounts credit the Viking explorer, Thorfinn Karlsfennias early as the 11th Century. Others claim that the Italian, Giovanni da Verrazano, set foot on its shores when he sailed along the coast from the Carolinas to Main in 1524. And yet a third group credits Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the Spaniard who founded St. Augustine in 1566. Regardless of who was first, it was the start of big changes for the Bay as Europeans came in search of treasure, conquest and resources to fuel expanding commercial ventures and burgeoning colonial empires.

Of course, the Europeans did not find the Bay region uninhabited - Native Americans had been in residence since 8000 B.C. The Native Americans had already cleared fields, established large towns, and were managing woodlands for hunting. Archaeology provides evidence of the extent of the Indians' use of Bay resources. Every year, empty oyster shells were stacked on top of the past year's discarded shells to form piles known as "midden heaps." The largest recorded midden heap was between 18 and 20 feet deep and covered 30 acres near Popes Creek on the Potomac River.

Still, the Bay the Europeans found was so rich and productive it seemed boundless and inexhaustible. The early colonists adopted some Native American ways, (like eating oysters and smoking tobacco) and from the Indian word "Tschiswapeki" derived the name "Chesapeake". They took over the ready made fields, and established their own towns on the old Indian sites. The town of Crisfield, Maryland, for example, was built atop old oyster shells in 1663.

As the European settlements grew, more and more land was cleared in the effort to "tame the wilderness." By 1675, all of Virginia's Eastern Shore had been parceled out. Over time, new technologies like the gun and the moldboard plow began to reshape the Bay system in ways we are only now beginning to comprehend. And from the earliest days of colonial history to modern times runs a constant thread - conflict over ownership of the Chesapeake's riches. Warfare, piracy, forced labor, and bloody disputes over boundaries and oyster bars have all left their marks.

Sailing The Chesapeake

Yet today the Chesapeake Bay still retains it's natural beauty, and in some areas, it's wilderness. There are over 4,000 miles of navigable shoreline. Summer winds are somewhat light, averaging about 8-12 knots. Spring and Fall winds are a little brisker. The warmer water makes for comfortable temperatures, making the Fall one of the favorite times for cruising by local sailors. Typical sailing distances average about 3-4 hours giving you lots of time to relax and enjoy the beauty of the bay.

The Chesapeake Bay is known for it's bountiful harvest of oysters, crabs, and fish. Of course, the famous Chesapeake Blue Crab and Chincoteague oysters are world famous seafood delicacies and you'll probably get a chance to see our waterman out on the bay harvesting them. The Chesapeake also boasts the last of the exclusively sail powered working fleets, the Skipjacks. They sail mostly in the Fall, but you can see them up close at St. Michaels, Solomons Island, and Deal Island. Deal Island hosts the annual Skipjack Races which occur on Labor Day weekend.

The Chesapeake Bay Boating Guide
The Chesapeake Bay Boating Guide - created out of our love for boating on the Bay

The Chesapeake Bay is a gentle body of water surrounded by lovely creeks and coves, populated by friendly, water oriented residents who welcome visitors to come and experience the pleasures of sailing the Chesapeake Bay.

1 This article is an excerpt from a fact sheet published by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Inc. Production was made possible by a generous grant from Virginia Power. For more information call or email: Chesapeake Regional Information Service 1-800-662-CRIS or

See a satellite image of The Chesapeake Bay Area. The image size is 647x768 pixels and is 117,506 bytes. It's a composite that I constructed by using 3 LandSat radar images. I think you'll agree that it's a grand view of this part of the world.

Here's a spectacular view of the entire Mid-Atlantic Region as seen by the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor, SeaWiFS. The image is provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE. The JPEG image is 850 x 937 pixels and is 161 KB in file size. It's really a beautiful image.

See maps of the tristate area.

Maryland Sea Grant is an excellent resource of information about the Chesapeake Bay. offers a free Chesapeake Bay newsletter and has an informative site with many nice features which should be of interest to tourists, mariners and folks living in the Bay area.

Free travel information kits are available for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

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