Chesapeake Bay, long murky and polluted, has mysteriously cleaned up its act

New Point Comfort Lighthouse showing new underwater grasses. Photo: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

Something very strange has happened in Chesapeake Bay.

Kayakers have noticed that for the first time, they’ve been able to see the tips of their paddles as they’ve maneuvered across the historic East Coast waterway.

Goose Island showing sand plume and underwater grasses. Photo: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

Boaters have glimpsed the bottom of a vast estuary that for years has been murky, thanks to constant agricultural runoff pouring in from rivers and streams, producing dense algae growth.

Indeed, seemingly on its own, Chesapeake Bay seems have cleaned up its act, even if only on a temporary basis.

The mysterious phenomenon was documented recently in stunning aerial images captured by Chesapeake Bay Foundation educator Bill Portlock.

Mobjack Bay with parallel progression of underwater sandbars visible offshore. Photo: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff

“It’s been the talk of the town some days,” Tangier Island Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge told The Virginian-Pilot. “I was commenting to some of the crabbers: ‘We’ve got water like you’d see in the Caribbean.’”

Scientists aren’t sure why Chesapeake Bay suddenly became so clear this fall, but it might have to do with the weather.

Chris Moore, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, explained to the Pilot that extended periods of dry weather in late summer and fall across the mid-Atlantic resulted in less runoff into the bay.

CBF’s Fox Island Education Center with underwater grasses. Photo: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

The largest river is the Susquehanna, which Moore discovered was flowing at two-thirds the rate, or less, of its average over the past 125 years.

As a result, a lot less nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilized farms – and ordinary sediment from the rushing water – are pouring into the bay from that source alone.

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Bottlenose dolphins enjoy the cleaner water. Photo: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

Whatever the reason, a clearer bay is a healthier bay, as sunlight that now actually reaches the bottom – a phenomenon that almost nobody can remember – is restoring bottom grasses and creating habitat for fish and crabs.

Portlock’s helicopter flight was November 17 over Tangier, an island town in the Middle of Chesapeake Bay. He almost dropped his camera in surprise when he saw bottle nose dolphins in the bay.

Brown pelicans over South Shanks Island. Underwater grasses offshore. Photo: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which considers the bay to be a national treasure, has been leading a push to reduce pollutants from entering the bay from the dozens of inland rivers and streams.

The group is in a constant struggle against agricultural interests, but it’s hoped that the bay’s remarkable clarity this fall has provided a glimpse at what the bay can look like most of the time if pollution levels can be cut significantly.

The “Fishhook” tip of Tangier Island extending underwater south of the island. Photo: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

A cleaner bay, the CBF has argued, will increase tourism and fishing in the region.

It could be wishful thinking, and the bay has already begin to cloud up in places as wintry storms sweep across the region, but supporters of a healthy Chesapeake Bay have shown, at the very least, that the bay can respond favorably, in a short period of time, when pollution levels are reduced.

Said Rick Batiuk, a scientist with the federal government’s bay program, and an occasional bay kayaker: “The system is saying, ‘I’ve got a resilience built in and I’ve got a short-term memory.’”

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