Chesapeake Bay

Learn about the waters you will navigate!

Bay History

The Chesapeake Bay offers a grand setting to pursue educational programming. When aboard Living Classrooms’ vessels, students learn new skills, develop an understanding for their surroundings, and gain a lasting appreciation for the Chesapeake Bay. On board the ships, students will examine the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the Bay. There are many interacting and interlocking parts. Almost everything in and around the Bay is linked.

BEGINNINGS: The Chesapeake Bay was formed ten thousand years ago when melting glaciers from the last ice age caused the sea level to rise and flood the lower Susquehanna River Valley. Humans have long realized the value and importance of this national treasure. Native American Indians lived in relative harmony with the Bay, using it primarily as a source of food and transportation. This balanced relationship between humans and the environment changed as European colonization accelerated and placed new and stressful demands on the water and land.

WHAT IS AN ESTUARY? The Chesapeake Bay is the largest and most valuable estuary in the United States. An estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water where fresh water from rivers meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean creating brackish water. Estuaries are highly productive ecosystems. The Chesapeake Bay offers a variety of plants, animals, and sea life. During your shipboard experience, you will see Chesapeake Bay life firsthand and test the water’s dissolved oxygen content, pH, temperature and salinity. Visit the Chesapeake Bay Program for more information on estuaries.

WATERSHED: The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a finely tuned ecosystem that balances the components of air, land, water, life, and non-living materials. The rivers that flow into the Bay drain a watershed of 64,000 square miles that includes parts of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay, each stream or river funnels rain waters to the estuary from the Appalachian Mountains, the Piedmont Plateau and the Coastal Plain. This means that even hundreds of miles away, water, nutrients, and pollutants run-off the land into streams, which flow into rivers that eventually reach the Bay.

WETLANDS:Often the streams and rivers in the watershed flow through marshlands or wetlands. These areas are extremely important to the life cycles of Chesapeake Bay plants and animals. Wetlands play a critical role in helping to filter excess nutrients and pollutants before they reach the Bay. In addition, they provide plenty of food and a great hiding place for young fish.

USES: Through the years people have used the Bay for different reasons including: a water supply, waste disposal, a source of food and jobs, industry, housing, transportation, forestry, agriculture, commerce, and recreation. The economy of this region thrives thanks to the Bay, yet due to such heavy human interaction, the health of the Bay and its life suffer. There are many pressures threatening to harm the Bay, click here for more information on them.

FUTURE: Citizens of the Bay region (nearly 17 million as of 2009) must strive to preserve this natural resource and maintain a healthy ecosystem. With careful management, the Chesapeake Bay will be saved for the benefit of future generations.

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The Bay

  • The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary, a body of water where fresh and salt water mix. It is the largest of 130 estuaries in the United States.
  • Formed about 12,000 years ago as glaciers melted and flooded the Susquehanna River valley, the Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest estuary and the world’s third largest.
  • The Bay is about 200 miles long, stretching from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to Virginia Beach, Virginia.
  • The Bay’s width ranges from 3.4 miles near Aberdeen, Maryland, to 35 miles near the mouth of the Potomac River.
  • The Bay holds more than 15 trillion gallons of water.
  • The Bay is surprisingly shallow. Its average depth, including all tidal tributaries, is about 21 feet. A person who is 6 feet tall could wade through over 700,000 acres of the Bay and never get his or her hat wet.
  • A few deep troughs running along much of the Bay’s length reach up to 174 feet in depth. These troughs are believed to be remnants of the ancient Susquehanna River.
  • Two of the five major North Atlantic ports in the United States-Baltimore and Norfolk/Hampton Roads-are on the Bay.
  • The Bay and its tidal tributaries have around 11,684 miles of shoreline-more than the entire U.S. West Coast.
  • The surface area of the Bay and its tidal tributaries is 125 billion square feet, or around 4,480 square miles.
  • The Bay supports more than 3,600 species of plants, fish and animals, including 348 species of finfish, 173 species of shellfish and over 2,700 plant species.
  • The Chesapeake is home to 29 species of waterfowl and is a major resting ground along the Atlantic Flyway. Every year, one million waterfowl winter in the Bay region.
  • The Chesapeake is a commercial and recreational resource for the more than 16 million people who live in its watershed.
  • The Bay produces about 500 million pounds of seafood per year.
  • “Chesapeake” derives from the Native American “Tschiswapeki,” which loosely translates into “great shellfish bay.”

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The Bay Watershed

  • The Bay receives about half its water volume from the Atlantic Ocean. The rest drains into the Bay from an enormous 64,000-square-mile watershed.
  • The Chesapeake Bay watershed includes parts of six states-Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia-and the entire District of Columbia.
  • The Susquehanna River provides about 50 percent of the fresh water coming into the Bay-an average of 19 million gallons of water per minute.
  • The Bay watershed is home to more than 16.6 million people. About 170,000 new people move into the Bay watershed each year.
  • There are about 150 major rivers and streams in the Bay watershed.
  • Everyone in the watershed lives just a few minutes from one of the more than 100,000 streams and rivers that drain into the Bay. Each of these tributaries can be considered a pipeline from communities to the Bay.
  • Water also enters the Bay through underground waterways. Water that does not drain into streams and rivers instead seeps into the soil and becomes part of the groundwater system that leads into the Bay.

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Bay Restoration

  • The Chesapeake Bay was the first estuary in the nation to be targeted for restoration as an integrated watershed and ecosystem.
  • Everything we do on the land-including the use of automobiles, fertilizers, pesticides, toilets, water and electricity-affects our streams, rivers and the Bay.
  • To restore the Bay, everyone has to make changes in the way we live in our own communities, homes and backyards.
  • The leading threat to the health of the Chesapeake Bay is excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that destroys habitat and causes fish kills. Top sources of these pollutants include agriculture, sewage treatment plants, runoff from urban and suburban areas, and air pollution from automobiles, factories, and power plants. Other threats to the Bay’s health include sprawl, toxic pollution, and poor fishery management.
  • Since colonial times, the Bay has lost half of its forested shorelines, over half of its wetlands, nearly 90 percent of its underwater grasses, and more than 99 percent of its oysters. During the 350 years between 1600 and 1950, approximately 1.7 million acres of the Bay watershed were developed. During the 30 years between 1950 and 1980, the Bay watershed lost an additional 2.7 million acres to development.
  • The landmark Chesapeake Bay Agreement (a voluntary pledge to Save the Bay signed by the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania as well as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the mayor of Washington, D.C.) serves as the blueprint for restoring the Bay’s health.

Bay Terms

  • Adaptation – any change in a species, which allows the species to survive and reproduce in its particular environment.
  • Anadromous – a fish born in fresh water that lives its adult life in salt water and returns to fresh water to spawn annually (striped bass, shad, and herring).
  • Benthos – the bottom of a body of water and the associated organisms that live there.
  • Biodegradation – is the chemical breakdown of materials by the environment.
  • Brackish – a mixture of fresh and salt water.
  • Catadromous – a fish born in salt water that lives its adult life in fresh water and returns to salt water to spawn annually. (American eel)
  • Commerce – the buying and selling of goods involving transportation from place to place.
  • Containerization – the method of shipping large amounts of material in large, uniform sized box, or “container”, such as the boxes seen on freight trains and semi-trailer trucks.
  • Dissolved Oxygen – (D.O.) – oxygen dissolved into the water through turbulence, photosynthesis, diffusion, etc. This is then available to organisms for respiration. D.O. is measured in parts per million (ppm).
  • Ecology – the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment. The environment of an organism includes non-living things, such as air and water, and also other organisms.
  • Economics – the business of dealing with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.
  • Ecosystem – an environment of living and non-living things that interact and connect. An ecosystem may be as small as a drop of water or as large as the earth.
  • Erosion – action by which water, wind, or gravity carry away soil and earth particles.
  • Estuary – a semi-enclosed coastal body of water where fresh and salt water mix.
  • Euryhaline – an organism that tolerates a wide range of salinity.
  • Eutrophication – over-enrichment of the Bay due to excessive nutrients (i.e. nitrates and phosphates) entering the water. This leads to algae blooms that suffocate submerged aquatic vegetation.
  • Fall line – the dividing line between the Piedmont (uplands/plateau) and Coastal Plain. The fall line is usually where a river flows very fast, dropping elevation quickly. Up-river navigation ends at this point.
  • Food Chain – the transfer of energy in an ecosystem where organisms survive by feeding on other organisms. A progression beginning with photosynthesis (sunlight) in plants – which are then consumed by animals that are in turn consumed by other living things.
  • Habitat – environment, place where a plant or animal usually lives.
  • Non Point Source Pollution – the non-specific, unidentifiable source of wastes and pollutants. Watershed runoff, storm drains, and air pollution are three examples for the Bay.
  • Nutrients – chemicals required for growth such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.
  • pH – the measure of hydrogen ion activity present in a water sample. pH is measured on a scale of l-l4 with 7 as neutral, 1-6 being acidic and 8-l4 progressively basic (alkaline). The pH level is a critical factor in determining a body of water’s suitability to sustain life.
  • Plankton – small organisms that move with the currents. They can be plants (phytoplankton) or animals (zooplankton). They are the foundation of the food chain.
  • Point Source of Pollution – a specific, identifiable place of discharge.
  • Pollutant – a substance which has adverse effects on the environment, including chemicals, oil, and other contaminants.
  • Port – a city with a harbor usually associated with imports and exports. (Also refers to the left side of a boat when facing the bow.)
  • Rural – relating to the country or farmland.
  • SAV (Submerged Aquatic Vegetation) – plants that grow underwater.
  • Salinity – the measure of the amount of dissolved salt in water. Salinity is measured in “parts per thousand”.
  • Salt marsh – flat marshy land that is subject to occasional flooding of salty water; contains water that ranges from brackish to strongly saline; supports a wide variety of plants and animals.
  • Sediment – matter deposited by water or wind – i.e. sand, silt, and mud.
  • Susquehanna River Valley – During the ice age the Susquehanna River flowed to the Atlantic Ocean slowly forming a large valley due to erosion. When the glaciers melted, the sea level rose (410 feet in 6,000 years) to fill this lower valley with the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Tide – the periodic rise and fall of water resulting from the gravitational attraction of the moon and sun. In a 24-hour period, there are two high tides and two low tides in this region.
  • Toxic Waste – a poisonous by-product of industrial, agricultural, or domestic wastes.
  • Tributary – a stream or river feeding into a larger body of water.
  • Turbidity – cloudiness of the water due to runoff, sewage, rough seas, etc.
  • Urban – relating to a city.
  • Variable – something that can change.
  • Watershed – all of the land that drains into a specific body of water.
  • Weathering – breakdown of earth’s surface by natural forces (water, wind, and temperature).

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Maritime Terms

  • Aloft – up on the higher rigging of the ship.
  • Amidships – the middle of the ship.
  • Anchor – a very heavy “hook” thrown overboard with a line attached that keeps a vessel in one place. LADY MARYLAND’s anchor comes from the first PRIDE OF BALTIMORE.
  • “Avast” – a command to stop hauling lines or heaving machinery.
  • Ballast – a load of weight in the bottom of a ship that balances the vessel. Originally stones or bricks, now usually lead bars.
  • Baltimore Clipper – a famous schooner built for speed and maneuverability. They were very light on the water, narrow and had many sails.
    In the War of 1812, Baltimore Clippers served as profitable privateers and blockade-runners. The PRIDE OF BALTIMORE II is a Baltimore Clipper.
  • Belaying Pins – wooden pins in the rail that are used to secure, or “belay” lines.
  • Bilge – the lowest part on the inside of a boat’s hull. It is normal to find some water in the bilge. Bilge pumps remove this water.
  • Block – a nautical pulley holding line of the rigging.
  • Boom – the horizontal pole that supports the bottom of the sails.
  • Bow – the forward end of the ship.
  • Captain’s Cabin – usually the cabin furthest aft. Typically, it is larger and more comfortable than other spaces onboard and serves as the ship’s office.
  • Companionway – the openings in the deck leading down to the ship’s compartments.
  • Crew – the men and women who operate a ship under the Captain’s direction.
  • Dredge ¬ 1. verb: To remove sludge (mud, or silt) from the bottom of water using big machine (such as a steam shovel on a barge). 2. To catch oysters by dragging a large rake with a chain bag (called a “dredge”) over the sea floor. Noun: The rake-like device used to catch oysters
  • “Ease Off” – a command to ease tension on a line.
  • Fo’c’sle (forecastle) – the crew’s living quarters in the forward part of the ship.
  • Forepeak – the furthest compartment forward in the ship.
  • Furl – to bring down and fold (flake) a sail.
  • Gaff – the upper spars attached to the foresail and mainsail that raise and lower the top of the sail.
  • Galley – a ship’s kitchen.
  • Halyard – originates from “hauling yards”. A halyard is a line or rope that is used to lift (hoist) a sail and keep it up.
  • Head – a ship’s toilet.
  • Helm – the steering wheel, which controls the rudder.
  • Hull – the body of a ship.
  • Keel – the fin shaped structure that runs along the bottom of the hull that keeps a boat from slipping sideways when sailing.
  • Knot – a unit to measure boat speed. One knot (nautical mile) equals approximately 1.15 miles per hour on land. Derives from old method of measuring speed in which a sailor threw a “chip log” (a piece of wood tied to a very long line with knots tied at even intervals) over the side and than counted the number of knots as they passed through his hands overboard.
  • Lazarette – a compartment located in the stern of the vessel. Traditionally, on large vessels, this space was used to quarantine the sick. Today it is usually used for storage.
  • Leeward – the side away from the wind – downwind.
  • Log – a nautical journal kept by the captain and crew, a record of the ship’s position and sailing conditions.
  • Main Hold – the main compartment in the middle of a vessel that would hold cargo.
  • “Make Fast” – a command from the captain or crew to secure a line.
  • Mast – a long vertical pole that supports the sails.
  • Mast Hoops – wooden rings that encircle the mast. The sail is attached to these rings, allowing the sail to be pulled up the mast easily.
  • Nautical Mile – is approximately equivalent to 1.15 statute (land) miles. One nautical mile is the same distance as one minute of latitude and 60 minutes of latitude equals one degree of latitude.
  • Navigation – the science of determining a vessel’s position while safely sailing from one position to another using navigational aids (charts, instruments, stars, etc.).
  • Oyster Dredging – a process of collecting oysters by scraping the bottom of the Bay using a rake-like instrument.
  • Peak – the after end of the gaff (away from the mast). Both the throat and the peak have halyards attached to them that are used to raise the sails.
  • Pilot Schooner – a boat that delivered pilots to large vessels entering the Chesapeake Bay. The pilot would then navigate the large ship through the tricky Bay channels. Pilot schooners had to be fast, because the first pilot schooner to reach the large ship would be paid for their service. Pilot schooners were the inspiration for fast vessels such as Baltimore Clippers, pungy schooners (such as LADY MARYLAND), and the yacht AMERICA (name sake of the America’s Cup).
  • Port – left side of ship when facing forward (remember “port” and “left” both have four letters). The word “port” also can refer to a harbor.
  • Privateering – legal pirating in early U.S. history authorized by the Government. Baltimore Clippers were very successful Privateers in the War of 1812.
  • Pungy – a fast schooner of Chesapeake Bay origin that thrived in the 1800’s as a workboat engaged in oystering and carrying cargo.
  • Rake – the angle formed when the mast leans backward.
  • Ratline – narrow rope ladder following the shrouds aloft to the top of the mast.
  • Reefing Points – small lines attached to the sail that are used to shorten (or “reef”) the sail when the wind becomes too strong. The sail is lowered to the reefing points that are then tied around the boom.
  • Rigging – 1. Running rigging – all lines that are moved in the operation of sailing to raise and trim the sails. 2. Standing rigging – all lines that do not move but which support the masts.
  • Shroud – the standing rigging that supports the masts (from the port to the starboard side). In the old days, they had so many shrouds attached to the masts that the masts were shrouded (blocked) from view.
  • Skipjack – a native Chesapeake Bay sailboat with a V-shaped bottom and one large mainsail. Skipjacks are used for dredging oysters.
  • Spar – the large rounded poles, including masts, booms, gaffs, yards and bowsprits, that connect sails to the vessels.
  • Starboard – right side of ship when looking forward.
  • Schooner – a ship with two or more masts where the forward mast is shorter or of the same height as the aft masts. Schooners are usually “fore and aft” rigged, meaning their sails are parallel with the keel of the vessel.
  • Stays – the fore and aft standing rigging, headstays (bow) and backstays (stern).
  • Stern – the rear of the vessel.
  • Sheet – the line attached to the sail that pulls the sail in or lets it out. A sheet adjusts the sails angle to the wind (trims the sail).
  • Shipsmith – the person who forges the metal fittings for the ship by hand. Like blacksmith, the shipsmith uses a coal fire and anvil to hammer hot metal into a desired shape.
  • Shipwrights – the men and women who specialize in building wooden ships.
  • Throat – the end of a boom or gaff where it travels up and down the mast.
  • Topsides – up on the deck – the top floor of the ship.
  • Trunnel – (tree nail) the wooden nails that hold a ship together. Unlike a metal nail, trunnels move with the expanding and contracting wood.
  • Watch – a portion of the crew that is on duty at a given time.
  • Windward – the side from which the wind is blowing upwind.

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Suggested Reading

There are many, many great books out there. Here are a few we use frequently in the shipboard department:

ADC the Map People. Chesapeake Bay VA and MD Chart Book (8th Edition). 2004

Adkins, J. The Craft of Sail Walker & Company; Reissue edition 1984.

Bell, D. & Ramsey, M. Awesome Chesapeake: A Kid’s Guide to the Bay Tidewater Publishers 2008.

Bell, D. & Wharton, J. Chesapeake Bay Walk Schiffer Publishing 1998.

Brewington, Chesapeake Bay – Log Canoes and Bugeyes, Schiffer Publishing; 2nd edition, 1963.

Brooks, W. The Oyster, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Burgess, R. Chesapeake Sailing Craft: Recollections of Robert H Burgess. Cornell Maritime Press, 2005.

Burgess, R. This was the Chesapeake Bay Tidewater Publishers; First Edition, 1963.

Cronin, W. The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake, The Johns Hopkins University Press; illustrated edition 2005.

Cummings, P. & Cohen, A. Meet Chadwick and His Chesapeake Bay Friends. Schiffer Publishing, 1999.

Cummings, P. & Cohen, A. Chadwick the Crab. Schiffer Publishing, 1986.

Cummings, P. & Aiken D. Chesapeake ABC . Schiffer Publishing 2000.

Ernst , H. Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics, and the Struggle to Save the Bay (American Political Challenges). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2003.

Ernst, H. Fight for the Bay: Why a Dark Green Environmental Awakening is Needed to Save the Chesapeake Bay, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,2009.

Graham, R. & Gill D. The Boy Who Sailed ‘Round the World. W Pub Group, 1985.

Healey, D. 1812 Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War. Bella Rosa Books , 2005.

Hoffecker, F. Chesapeake Oyster-Man, CreateSpace, 2008.

Horton, T. Bay Country The Johns Hopkins University Press 1994.

Horton, T. An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake, W. W. Norton, 2008.

Horton, T. Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay Island Press; Revised edition, 2003.

Horton, T. & Harp, D. Water’s Way: Life along the Chesapeake, The Johns Hopkins University Press; 2000.

James, N. Alone Around the World. Putnam Publishing Group, 1979.

Keith, B. Baltimore Harbor: A Picture History, The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1985.

Klingel, G. The Bay, The Johns Hopkins University Press 1984.

Lawson, G. The Last Waterman Crisfield Publishing Company; Presumed First Edition, 1988.

Line, L. Waterwomen , Queen Anne Press (1982)

Lippson & Lippson. Life in the Chesapeake Bay, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

MacIntyre, D. The Adventure of Sail 1520 – 1914. 1979

Michener, J. Chesapeake. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003. (especially chapters: Voyage One and Two, The Slave Breaker, and The Watermen)

Niemeyer, L. & Meyer, E. Chesapeake Country. Abbeville Press, 1990.

Schubel, J.R. The Life and Death of the Chesapeake Bay. Schiffer Publishing, June 1986.

Shields, J. Chesapeake Bay Cooking Broadway Publishing, 1998.

Shomette , D. Pirates on the Chesapeake: Being a True History of Pirates, Picaroons, and Raiders on Chesapeake Bay, 1610-1807 , Tidewater Publishers, 2008.

Shomette D. Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake: Maritime Disasters on Chesapeake Bay and Its Tributaries, 1608- 1978. Tidewater Publishers; Seventh Printing edition, 2007.

Suss , J. Oscar and Olive Osprey: A Family Takes Flight Synergy Books 2009.

Teal, J. Life and Death of the Salt Marsh, Ballantine Books, 1991.

Tekiela, S. Birds of Maryland & Delaware Field Guide: Includes Washington, D.C. & Chesapeake Bay. Adventure Publications, 2005.

Towsend, G. Tales of the Chesapeake, Loney Press, 2010.

Troubled Waters: Nutrients and Toxics, Twin Threats for the Chesapeake – by Maryland Sea Grant.

Turner, W. Chesapeake Boyhood: Memoirs of a Farm Boy The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

University Press; 3rd edition, 2006. Walker, S. Life in an Estuary: The Chesapeake Bay (Ecosystems in Action) Lerner Publications, 2002.

Warner, W. Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay Back Bay Books, 1994.

Wennersten , J. The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay, John R Wennersten, 2007.

White, C. Chesapeake Bay: Nature of the Estuary : A Field Guide, Schiffer Publishing; 1st edition, 1989.

Whitehead, J. The Watermen of Chesapeake Bay, Schiffer Publishing; Subsequent edition, 1987.

Williams, J. Chesapeake: Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John Smith National Geographic, 2007.

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