Our Beautiful Bay

We traveled from one of the Chesapeake Bay's northernmost points in North East, Maryland, to one of its southernmost points in Cape Charles, Virginia, and explored unique habitats along the way.

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The entire Chesapeake Bay watershed spans 64,000 square miles from New York to Virginia, but more than half of the Bay itself is contained within the state of Maryland.

The protection, preservation and restoration of critical habitats in and around the Bay are one key to improving the health of the Chesapeake. These habitats include forests and wetlands as well as submerged aquatic grass beds and oyster reefs—all of which contribute to a healthy Bay and tributaries by filtering out pollutants and excess nutrients.

Traveling from one of the Chesapeake Bay's northernmost points in North East, Maryland, to one of its southernmost points in Cape Charles, Virginia, these habitats can be found all along the way. In addition to their heavy-duty filtering work, they provide other important ecosystem functions and are home to unique plants and animals that add to the Bay's diverse landscape and national significance.

Upper Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay's watershed extends as far north as Cooperstown, New York, but the northernmost tip of the physical Bay is found in Havre de Grace, Maryland, where the mighty Susquehanna River—the Bay's largest tributary—empties into the nation's largest estuary.

Aerial View of the Shoreline and Forest Line of Elk Neck State Park Surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay

Just southeast of Havre de Grace, across an expanse of water that marks the beginning of the Bay, is the Turkey Point area of Elk Neck State Park, located in North East. Here, the land juts out into a narrow peninsula, surrounded by the Elk River on one side and the headwaters of the Bay on the other. Steep 100-foot-high bluffs slope down to the water's edge on the 15-mile peninsula, which is mostly encompassed by a deciduous forest that includes oaks, maples, paw paw trees and other native species, providing a haven for local wildlife.

View of the Tree Line of Elk Neck State Park From the Surface of the Water of the Chesapeake Bay

Most of the Bay's water is brackish—a mix of fresh and salt water—but the salinity levels vary based on the location in the estuary. In general, salinity increases from north to south, as the Bay approaches the salty Atlantic Ocean. The upper Chesapeake Bay is known as the tidal fresh zone, where salinity is low, with readings typically ranging from 0 to .5 parts per thousand.

The low salinity in this area can largely be attributed to the immense volume of fresh water pouring in from the Susquehanna River, which empties into the Bay at an astonishing 19 million gallons per minute.

At a small sliver of beach at Turkey Point, fragmented shells are dispersed among rocks and stones of varying sizes. Shells found in the upper regions of the Bay come from freshwater mussels and aquatic snails. As mollusks and gastropods (or snails) with shells grow, their shells must grow with them. Growth rings on their shells can indicate periods of growth. While trees' growth rings form annually and can be used to determine a tree's age, determining the age of a mollusk by counting its growth rings has been proven to be inaccurate.

Aerial View of an Inland Wetland Surrounded by Trees at Elk Neck State Park with the Chesapeake Bay in the Background

A wetland, like Elk Neck State Park's Beaver Marsh, is an area of low-lying land that is seasonally or permanently saturated with water. Wetlands are incredibly productive ecosystems, providing critical habitat to the plants and animals that are uniquely adapted to thrive in these water-logged environments. They also provide several important ecological functions, serving as buffers between land and water that slow the flow of pollutants into the Bay and absorb excess stormwater.

There are two main types of wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: tidal wetlands, which flood with salt water or brackish water with rising tides, and non-tidal wetlands, which are inland areas that contain fresh water and are not influenced by the tides.

Middle Chesapeake Bay

As you move south in the Bay, away from the estuary's fresh headwaters and toward the Atlantic Ocean, the salinity of the water increases. From the tidal fresh zone in the upper Chesapeake Bay, the water transitions into the oligohaline (slightly salty) zone and then the mesohaline (moderately salty) zone.

Although the water becomes saltier moving north to south, the specific salinity levels don't stay constant throughout the year. In the spring, the Bay tends to be less salty due to heavy rainfall that dumps fresh water into the estuary. In the drier summer months, the Bay is generally saltier.

Aerial View of a Wetland with the Rising Sun Behind Trees in the Background in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, located in Cambridge, Maryland, contains one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands. The refuge has three major habitats—tidal marsh, forests (both hardwood and pine), and freshwater wetlands. Blackwater was established as a waterfowl sanctuary for migrating birds in 1933 and encompasses more than 32,000 acres today.

Forests within the Chesapeake Bay watershed are disappearing at an alarming rate, despite all the benefits they provide. Trees contribute to clean, healthy waterways by absorbing nutrients and pollution from rain and stormwater, reducing runoff and controlling erosion. They also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While planting new trees is beneficial, researchers have found that preserving mature trees has an even greater impact when it comes to combating climate change, since they sequester more carbon dioxide than immature trees.

Small Boat Tied Up in a Wetland Full of Grasses on Hooper Island

Cordgrass is common in and around the Bay and provides important environmental benefits. It can survive both in and out of water, becoming completely submerged or exposed as tides rise and fall. These grasses help mitigate flooding, stabilize the sandy soil where they grow and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Shoots of cordgrass grow in a marsh near the Bay. In addition to the environmental benefits these grasses provide, they also support wildlife. During high tides, small fishes move up into the flooded cordgrass habitat to feed on small crustaceans, snails, insects and worms. Cordgrass also offers protection for small prey, which can hide from predators within its thick stems.

Lower Chesapeake Bay

Not surprisingly, salinity levels in the Bay are highest where it meets the Atlantic Ocean and salt water flows in. In these lower areas of the Bay, salinity readings can average 25 to 30 parts per thousand.

Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve near Cape Charles, Virginia, is a 298-acre preserve with a mile of Chesapeake Bay shoreline. Its habitats include beaches, dunes, coastal grassland, coastal shrubland and maritime forests.

Close-up of a Pine Cone Partially Buried in the Sand

The maritime dune woodland habitat found in Savage Neck Dunes is rare throughout the world. These habitats are woodlands composed of deciduous, coniferous, and broadleaf evergreens, found on dunes that are more inland and protected from regular saltwater spray.

Aerial View of the Water, Shoreline, and Woods of Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve

The habitats of Savage Neck Dunes support a wide array of wildlife—including seabirds, songbirds, deer, fox, frogs, turtles, butterflies and dragonflies. The preserve is home to the threatened Northeastern beach tiger beetle, which used to be common along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Virginia but is now rare.

Oysters are a keystone species of the Chesapeake Bay, but less than 1% of the Bay's historic native oyster population remains. This is due to overharvesting, disease, poor water quality and other issues. Oysters contribute to clean, healthy water—in the Bay and elsewhere—by filtering out excess nutrients like nitrogen.

National Treasure

Efforts are underway to designate a Chesapeake National Recreation Area as part of the National Park System. This would recognize the significance of our nation's largest estuary and deliver more federal resources to the watershed region. Senator Chris Van Hollen and Congressman John Sarbanes have released draft legislation and are spearheading this effort, which would also highlight the Bay's diverse landscape, celebrate its history and more.

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