• Story by Kristina Gaddy | Photos by Caroline J.

Strange Tails: The fact and fiction of Chessie, the sea monster of the Chesapeake Bay


Winter means only the very brave (or very crazy) are dipping into the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. That might be a good thing. Beneath the calm waters of our beloved bay, a monster lurks — or so Maryland lore would have us believe.

On a clear night in May 1982, Robert Frew and his wife Karen entertained friends at their home along the Bay. Around 7:30 p.m., when the calm water reflected the low sun’s rays, Robert looked out to admire the scene.

“Look at that thing floating over there,” he remembers saying. Was it a log? The seven-foot long object was floating against the tide. It must have been propelling itself. It disappeared. Everyone kept their eyes on the water.

It reappeared, almost forty feet long, by Robert’s guessing. They watched in awe. Then it dawned on them — they needed to catch whatever this was on camera. Five minutes later, Robert had captured Chessie, the Chesapeake Bay monster on video. The grainy footage aired on WJZ-TV, but this wasn’t the first sighting of Chessie, and isn’t the last.

The first sighting of a sea monster in the Bay might have been in 1846, when a Captain Lawson saw something unusual in the waters between the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula and what is today Virginia Beach at the mouth of the Bay, according to Matt Lake in the book Weird Maryland.

In 1936, pilots of a military helicopter over Bush River in Harford County spotted something strange in the water below. In 1963, Dr. Lionel A. Walford (a “sober researcher” according to the Baltimore Sun) saw something forty feet long, five inches wide, and seven or eight inches deep in the Bay. In July 1977, fisherman Greg Hupka snapped a photo of an unusual creature in the water near the Potomac River.

In July 1978, a retired CIA officer and his wife spot creatures swimming in water, and other reports of a mysterious sea creature appeared around the Newport News and Norfolk area.

In 1980, Trudy Guthrie spotted a creature while out boating. In August 1984, families spotted something in the water three separate times.

The last few decades have been calmer. The most recent sighting was in 2014, when Chris Gardner spotted “a long, snake-like creature slithering through the water with a serpentine motion. This creature was as least 20 feet long.”

Most sightings occur between July and October, and almost always describe Chessie as looking like a snake, and swimming either with a side-to-side motion (like a snake) or in an up-and-down motion.

Those who believe in Nessie the monster of the Loch Ness point to the astounding depths of the loch to account for how the creature can hide. While the Chesapeake Bay is only 175 feet deep compared to the Loch Ness’s 740, the Bay is 204 times larger than the loch at 4,500 square miles. It’s easy to imagine what creatures might hide in the largest estuary in North America.

And lots of animals do turn up in the Bay that don’t belong. One of the most commonly spotted mystery creatures are manatees, marine mammals that can grow up to 15 feet long and usually find their habitats in warmer waters. One Florida manatee who visited the Bay three times between 1994 and 2011 even received the nickname Chessie.

Fisherman have also spotted sharks in the Bay. The same summer of 1936 when a military helicopter spotted a mysterious creature in the Bay, fisherman Linwood Thomas pulled a seven foot, 400-pound shark off Love Point on Kent Island. In 1916, a fisherman landed a 600-pound shark. Sharks have even been spotted in the Patapsco River. In 1932, another sea monster made headlines: a 1,500-pound leatherback turtle, another animal that usually prefers saltwater.

Those who have spotted Chessie deny that it is a manatee or shark — Chessie is much longer. Greg Hupka denied his photo was of a sea turtle. He knew what turtles looked like in the water and what he saw was different, he said.

So, what is Chessie? When experts from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History viewed Robert Frew’s tape, they determined the thing in the water was, “animate but undefinable,” and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab confirmed that, “A definitely serpentine form emerged from the blurry tape.”

Many descriptions make Chessie sound like a snake. Some people suggested that Chessies are related to anacondas that escaped from ships abandoned in Baltimore. While the Green Anaconda can grow up to 22 feet and lives primarily in water, it lives in warm, freshwater rivers in South America, not cold, brackish water.

However, the large concentrations of Chessie sightings happened right after the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant went online in the mid-1970s. While the reactors probably haven’t created a mutated snake or awoken a prehistoric beast (a la Godzilla), the water around the power plant is warmer than other parts of the Bay.

The descriptions of a serpentine creature also match descriptions of oarfish, an elusive fish that can grow up to 36 feet and looks like a giant eel with dorsal fins. The fish lives in temperate waters below 600 feet, and while the depth of the Bay is only 175 feet, oarfish have come to higher depths when sick or injured.

The late 1970s and 1980s were the zenith of Chessie sightings. Between 1982, when WJZ broadcast the Frew video, and 1988, Bay Weekly reports people saw Chessie (or Chessies) 78 times. Dr. Eric Cheezum of Chesapeake College believes this had to do with the zeitgeist of the time. He points out that Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” came out in 1975, increasing fears of monsters in the water.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw an explosion of cryptozoology, the study of unconfirmed animals like Chessie. The Bay was also incredibly unhealthy during the time of the sightings: pollution and overfishing were rampant, and blue crabs weren’t hatching well. Maybe the polluted Bay created a monster, or a monster drew attention to a polluted Bay.

Even if sightings are not as common today, the sea creature is alive in Maryland culture. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service featured Chessie on the front of a coloring book promoting Bay conservation. You can also spot Chessie floating in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (in the form of paddle boats) and adorning the side of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. RaR Brewing in Cambridge chose to feature a Chessie on their beer cans, while Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore named their barleywine-ale Chessie.

And of course, fans of WBFF’s Captain Chesapeake children’s TV show will remember Mondy the Sea Monster, a character that predated the name Chessie but also roams the Bay. Whether Chessie is real or not, we can embrace the Maryland legend.

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