To Know the Bay, We Need Stories

The following first appeared in Bay Journal News earlier this month.   ©KarineAigner_CBFRave-1283Sandy Point State Park, Annapolis, Maryland. Three boys play with water and buckets on an evening at the beach. Photo © 2010 Karine Aigner/iLCP.

I am a landlubber. I sailed solo in my youth, canoed and swam in ice-cold rivers and even fished. But I am not—by any stretch of the imagination—a water person.

Yet that has always puzzled me because I grew up in Baltimore—a harbor town defined by and reliant on the water.

I remember fourth or fifth grade, when we studied the attributes of our fair state—our flag, our geography, our major industries and resources. We were given black and white maps with the counties boldly outlined and were told to fill in their names, color their spaces and highlight the economic engines that drove them all. But the exercise did not include, that I can remember, the Bay itself.

If we schoolchildren were taught the value of our rivers, the romance of the Bay, their unique geological history and colorful traditions, I missed it.

Much has changed in 40 years. The Inner Harbor now reminds us landlubbers that Baltimore is a water town. The booming residential construction and human migration to all sides of the harbor demonstrate the water’s  lure. The health (or “ill-th” as some might call it) of the Bay is news. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s penchant for fact-driven policy has created BayStat, a tool that allows us “to assess, coordinate and target Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay restoration programs and to provide citizens with a way to track our progress.”

But the truth is, raw facts do not motivate us. Facts embedded in a compelling story do. Baystat may form the incontrovertible scaffolding of Chapter Two. But what is missing is Chapter One: the once-upon-a-time narrative of the rivers and the Bay, the stuff that seeps into our dreams, that children conjure up in their play, the stories that rouse passions and delight.

For those who live on or by the water, the Bay is the metronome of their lives, beating out the pulse of time. It colors their days, spices their air, brings forth their food, spreads before them in broad, open spaces. The water runs along the edges of their homes and in their veins.

For the rest of us, though, the Bay hardly exists. And yet we, all 17 million of us scattered throughout the six states and the District of Columbia of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, affect the quality of its water and in turn are affected by it.

So the question is, how do we get all of us—the far-flung denizens of the Chesapeake watershed who are bound together by the lay of the land and the water that rushes by us—to our common pool, to care about our rivers and our Bay?

Chapter One. The stories. Think of the storied Thames, the Mississippi, the Nile, and the Amazon. (The Chesapeake is, after all, a drowned river. How dramatic, or romantic or adventurous.)

The Chesapeake region (the Bay and its watershed) does not lack such romance or history or stories. We can hold our own with the best of them. It is just that our stories are largely unknown beyond the water’s edge.

Bay storyteller Tom Horton, on the one hand, and the “Bard of the Chesapeake” Tom Wisner, on the other, are rightly celebrated and stand out in their power and talent. But we no doubt have more hidden jewels.

Their work is likely hidden in the attics and cupboards of old Eastern Shore houses—the diaries of the watermen, their wives, and their pastors. They are likely on mimeographed sheets in local shore libraries. Or in kitchen drawers next to the keys to the tool shed.

We need to surface and encourage and promote all of this work, speak of it, celebrate it. We need to hear about the moods of the Bay. How many shades of anger does she have? How many styles of softness? We need to publish and broadcast and You-Tube the full-bodied, sun-streaked, wind-blown, river-swept, bank-sitting, foot-dangling, water-logged stories from all up and down the vast Chesapeake Bay and her great rivers.

How wonderful that Preservation Maryland's Endangered Maryland program recently placed the Chesapeake Bay “watermen” on the endangered icon list. How great that there is an effort afoot “to provide watermen and their family members skills they would need to provide tours or programs about their region's stories, their local waters and their work.”

We are all sentient beings who “think” as much with our hearts as with our minds. To tell the stories of the Chesapeake region is a necessary companion to speaking the facts of the Bay. Once animated in story, the Bay will become more than a commodity or policy issue or even economic engine. It will become—as it is—our enchanted home.

Nina Beth Cardin



Last Day

Day 4 from photographer Neil Ever Osborne's trek across Pennsylvania for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE.

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Pine Creek, tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

On the last day of the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, I stared at a rock for over an hour. The rock above actually. It was alone. The only rock breaching the surface of the scene. I used it to create a time lapse for a multimedia component of the RAVE some of my colleagues are working on. Time lapses are incredible tools that allow you to use multiple still images to create motion in a single scene. Subtle as it might be, the water ripples were the only thing moving, I was trying to elicit a mood that would suggest we can keep Pennsylvania's rivers, streams, and creeks clean if we keep making positive changes.

The farmers in Pennsylvania who work so closely with the land are doing this. They are planting more trees to create corridors that can act as buffers along waterways on their property. More trees equal more nutrient absorption and less soil erosion, and overall better health for the watershed.

This morning I was working alongside Frank Rohrer, a stream buffer specialist who works with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He is a photographer himself so the early rise at 5:00 a.m. was not too much hassle for the both of us. We worked the Pine Creek scene for a couple of hours, concentrating on simple compositions offered. Then, once the sun was up and the fog had dissipated, we headed home to conclude my RAVE assignment.

While I have no trouble staring at rocks for lengthy periods of time, I really was itching to see more of the Pennsylvania wildlife Rohrer talked about in the preceding days I was with him. Ideally, I would also get a chance to photograph these animals, but as nature often chooses, this is not always the case. Sometimes the sighting is enough.

On the way back to the cabin in the woods, we were fortunate to glance a Bald Eagle, a White-tailed fawn, and a Black Bear mother with two cubs.

Check back here in the next couple of weeks to learn more details about the upcoming action exhibit later in September on Capital Hill*. iLCP photographers will share images from the Chesapeake Bay RAVE.

- Neil Ever Osborne

* Thirty of the hundreds of photographs collected by iLCP photographers during the RAVE will be on exhibit in the Capital Rotunda September 20 - October 1.

Read all posts for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE

Learn more about the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Hunting for Hellbenders

Day 3 from photographer Neil Ever Osborne's trek across Pennsylvania for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE.

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Eastern Hellbender Salamander or Giant Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) eating a crayfish.

Have you ever seen this critter before? I had not. I also did not know where to find them but their mystic was enough to intrigue me to look. During the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, collaborations with local experts and people on the ground were essential. This seems like a common thread with conservation projects these days and so through Chesapeake Bay Foundation communications guru Kelly Donaldson I was able to reach out to Dr. Peter Petokas of Lycoming College to assist me with a photo shoot with the amphibian he knows so well.

Eastern Hellbender Salamanders can grow to more than 25 inches in length, making them the third largest aquatic salamander species in the world. They really are that big. I wanted photographs of the giant salamander to introduce this amazing animal to those who had never seen one. What role they play in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might not be as clear as with other aquatic wildlife but they certainly maintain a balance in the crayfish numbers, eating them frequently with a suction feeding behavior.

Other names for this wicked looking creature are snot otter, devil dog, mud-devil, grampus, the Allegheny alligator, leverian water newt, and vulgo. But, to me they are not that ugly. Some people say the name Hellbender comes from their odd appearance. Under the water, they have the unassuming appearance of rocks, though this did not stop us from finding them. With Petokas at hand, we were able to photograph five Hellbenders in their natural setting.

I have my fingers crossed that one of my Hellbender images ends up in the 30-image action exhibit that premieres this September on Capital Hill*. iLCP and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are using the images this RAVE creates to facilitate news coverage of the urgency of the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Act to speed the restoration of the Bay's health and protect it over the long term.

I was also able to ask Dr. Peter Petokas a few questions during our time together and he had these few comments:

Q: Why do you study the Hellbender?

A: I began to study the Hellbender out of curiosity, what it was, where it was, and how well the species was doing, since no one seemed to know the answers to these things. We've since learned an amazing amount of new information about this animal and I hope to continue my studies as long as I am able. It's not pretty and it doesn't entertain us with interesting behaviors, but it is an intriguing animal, very secretive, difficult to access, and a key predator on stream crayfish. Having documented migrations of up to five miles, this creature defies what we think we know about salamanders.

Q: How important is the Hellbender to the Chesapeake watershed?

A: We've lost so much of the value of our watersheds through resource extraction and habitat degradation, that the Hellbender is now in jeopardy of complete extirpation. Along with the Bald Eagle the American Shad, the Hellbender is a poster child for everything that we've done wrong in the watershed. We've mismanaged the Susquehanna River Basin for over 200 years and it will never return to the pristine state when Bald Eagles, Mountain Lions, and Hellbenders were important keystone predators in the food chain. We're working to return long lost species such as Shad and Eels to the West Branch, but the Hellbender hasn't been eliminated yet and I'm working hard to ensure that existing populations remain viable with the ultimate goal of reintroducing Hellbenders to previously-occupied streams.

Q: You have a ritual of taking a photo of each student you work with holding a Hellbender, why?

A: A cameo shot is taken of each person who works with me to document their participation and for use on their personal web pages. I'm working on a Powerpoint presentation of the approximately 100 cameo photos that I have and will convert it to a Quicktime video, sequencing through photos of elementary and high school students and teachers, undergraduate students and professors, graduate students, ecologists, researchers, and other folks who have worked with me. I've even had students and teachers visit here from Japan to learn about Hellbenders.

Q: Are the populations of Hellbenders in the Chesapeake watershed doing well?

A: This animal is so difficult to study that it has taken me six years to discover that the Hellbender is in serious jeopardy of disappearing from the Susquehanna River Basin. It was once thought to be widespread throughout the basin, but today it appears to be restricted to just three tributaries of the Susquehanna River. Most populations in the West Branch were lost many years ago due to abandoned mine drainage. We've lost two other West Branch populations since 2006, one due to a Sodium Hydroxide spill and another due to rapid die-off from unknown causes. Several Main Stem populations have disappeared since the early to mid-1990's. I only hope that the three extant populations in the West Branch will remain healthy and not succumb to disease or the kinds of environmental disasters that occurred in the past.

- Neil Ever Osborne

* Thirty of the hundreds of photographs collected by iLCP photographers during the RAVE will be on exhibit in the Capital Rotunda September 20 - October 1.

Read all posts for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE

Learn more about the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Changing the Landscape

Day 2 from photographer Neil Ever Osborne's trek across Pennsylvania for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE.

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A water pipe lays in the land where trees once stood.

As part of the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, one of my goals was to create images that depict land disturbance in Pennsylvania. Covering this topic was important to connect the terrestrial environment with the issues of water quality in the watershed.

Bottom line: as the landscape changes, so does the flow of nutrients and sediments into the water, and that which enters the Susquehanna River could stand a chance of emptying into the bay.

As a focus point, I worked closely with some of the natural gas companies drilling within the Marcellus Shale to showcase how natural resource extracting is modifying the topography. In brief, the Marcellus Shale contains largely untapped natural gas reserves and companies have been flocking to this "play," the industry term for a rich area of natural resources, for over two years now. A local source in Pennsylvania told me there were over 25 individual companies working the land. Some, like Chesapeake Energy, are taking precautionary measures to minimize disturbance they cause, others seem not to be so keen.

As an example, gas companies need to use huge amounts of water during the drilling operation. In a process called hydraulic fracturing, water is pumped through serpentine like pipes that navigate through the landscape to a 4-5 acre drill site. Once there the water is then pumped into the well bore (pipes leading to the shale below the ground) at high pressures forcing the underground rock formation to fracture resulting in a more porous substrate for the gas to travel through.

Did I mention they need an insane amount of water to do this! A well blowout in Pennsylvania on June 3, 2010 sent more than 35,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluids into the air and onto the surrounding landscape in a forested area.

As more and more permits for well sites are allocated, Pennsylvania counties like Bradford and Tioga, who seem to have the most drilling activity, will see more alterations to their countrysides.

- Neil Ever Osborne

Read all posts for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE

Find out more about the International League of Conservation Photographers

From Humble Beginnings

For the next four days we'll be sharing posts from photographer Neil Ever Osborne's trek across Pennsylvania for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE.

Will Harloff of Copperstown, NY fishes on the Susquehanna River at its origin in Otsego Lake.

From its humble beginning in Otsego Lake, the Susquehanna River winds 444 miles through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay near Havre de Grace, Maryland. While the Susquehanna boasts statistics that define it as the longest river east of the Mississippi and the 16th largest river in the United States its most impressive feat is that it dumps more than 50 percent of the freshwater that enters the Chesapeake Bay. I came to the origin of this river for that reason alone as part of an iLCP Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE).

In short, the concept behind iLCP's RAVE initiatives is to address the challenges of modern conservation by creating a full visual and media assessment of a conservation issue or threat in a very short period of time.

On the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, of which I am one of nine photographers, the iLCP has partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other experts on the ground that call the Chesapeake watershed home.

I am in Pennsylvania covering the northern region of the state with the hopes of capturing images that depict natural resource consumption, pristine rivers and creeks, and the aquatic wildlife that might inhabit the area.

Stay tuned for more work as my week in PA unfolds.

- Neil Ever Osborne

* Thirty of the hundreds of photographs collected by iLCP photographers during the RAVE will be on exhibit in the Capital Rotunda September 20 - October 1.

Read all posts for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE

Learn more about the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Middle-Aged Tarzans Hurtling into the James? What Are They Thinking?

Today's guest blog is from Krista Schlyer, a professional photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers who has been documenting the pollution issues plaguing the Chesapeake Bay. Last time we heard from Krista she was exploring the Anacostia River in Maryland. She has since moved on to Virginia's James River.

Remember when every kid had a swimming hole and every river a rope swing? I remember heading down to the creek swinging a metal pail with an apple and sandwich Ma made for me, fishing pole on my shoulder, Albert waiting for me at our favorite spot. Wait, no, that was Little House on the Prairie. But I swam in rivers once, I think. Don’t remember. But I do remember very clearly the day when I was about 9 years old and my mom wouldn’t let us go swimming with a group of kids in the St. Joe River in northern Indiana. A friend of hers had recently gotten a chunk of glass lodged in his leg while swimming in the river, and it was off limits to us ever after.

Not being able to swim in a river on a hot day is kind of like being dehydrated, having a glass of water right in front of you but knowing it is at least a little bit poisonous. It’s torture, the deepest kind of alienation from the earth. But I’ve always figured we were all in the same boat. I didn’t think people swam in urban rivers any more, which is why during my trip to Richmond to cover the James River for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, my jaw dropped wide open when I saw a whole community of people swimming off the city’s riverbank. My first inclination was to stop the people around me and say, “Did you see this? What the crack are they doin?” Multiple rope swings were set up along a stretch of the river in downtown Richmond. Kids and adults alike waited in line for their turn at the rope. Grown men hollered Tarzan yells and tried to outdo each other when it came their turns. Is this Mars? 1950? A rerun of Gentle Ben?

Few people swim in the Potomac or the Anacostia Rivers, in part because it is illegal in the District of Columbia due to concerns about the health of the water. I once did a triathlon swim in the Potomac, but there were daily tests of the water quality leading up to the event. Had there been a good rain, the swimming portion of the event would have been canceled rather than risk illness of swimming in the river. So seeing these apparently normal human beings swimming in the James made my head spin. It looked like so much fun. It occurred to me, maybe the James is just that much cleaner than the Potomac.

No, not really. The sewage that flows into the river after large rains pours in downstream of where most people swim, which helps increase water quality for swimmers. But the suburbs and rural agriculture runoff that enter the James upstream ensure that unhealthy chemicals and fecal matter are part of the water here just as they are in the Potomac. Swimmers can get ear and intestinal infections, and who knows what else, but the idea of not swimming in the river must be worse than swimming in a polluted river. How’s that for a choice?

On a walk along the James the following morning, I happened across one of the signs the city of Richmond displays to explain the sewage overflow system to its citizens. In an unfortunate choice of colors, the brown sign has a caricature of a fish who looks quite pleased with himself for swimming above the outflows of sewage coming from urban Richmond. The text supports the contentment of the poster-fish, saying the fish and birds are not harmed by sewage because the pollutants are mixed into the river water by the rapids. Water + poo = smiley. The sign also reads: “Releasing storm water here two or three times a year is an economically and socially prudent way to combine the impact of a vibrant urban community with the need for a clean and healthy river.” I’m not sure how putting sewage in the river makes it cleaner and healthier, but I’m no expert. And that fish sure looks happy.

The reflections of the city off the river in soft morning light, combined with thoughts of a city of middle-aged Tarzans hurtling themselves into the James, highlight what an amazing resource the river is. This city seems in the process of a great revitalization. There are terrific restaurants featuring local foods, there are new galleries and river parks, the kind of things that lead to healthier living and greater quality of life. But soft-pedaling the impact of human waste, street and industrial runoff, and agricultural pollutants flowing into the river seems unnecessary. We have made strides on water quality. Many rivers are in better shape than they were a couple of decades ago, thanks to the Clean Water Act. But we have a long way to go before we can tell people they no longer have to make a choice between swimming in our rivers and their health. Pathogens with ominous names like vibrio, cyanobacteria and crypto sporidium, along with mercury from coal plants and nitrates from farm and lawn runoff, pose potentially serious health risks to people and wildlife. Back in the 1950s and 60s we may have had the excuse that we didn’t know the impact of human pollution on our watersheds. We no longer have that excuse. Now it comes down to a choice between making important changes, or continuing business as usual and accepting our alienation from our own rivers.

On August 23, 2010, Virginia released its latest 303d Water Quality Report. According to the report, the number of waterways on the state's "dirty waters list" continues to increase. Find out more about the report on

For more information about the continuing health hazardous posed in our waterways, read our Bay Daily Blog post, "Increased Risk of Dangerous Infections from the Bay" and download our 2009 Bad Water report, "The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region."

Documenting Abandoned Mines and Their Impact on Water

Today's guest blog is from Miguel Angel de la Cueva, a professional photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers who has been documenting sites affected by abandoned mines.

13/08/2010 Today i arrived Ashley to visit the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation and it’s Executive Director Robert Hughes, we visited 4 sites (Newport Township, Nanticoke, Old Forge and Wilkes-Barre) affected by abandoned mines and suffering from acid mine damage/drainage,  local media came along and did coverage also, i never spected to find such a polluted environment, almost two days after my clothes are stained with a intense orange color and the strong smell of sulphur remains.


(above) Newport Lake-”Loch Mess”-an abandoned water-filled anthracite strip mining pit 20 acres in size, 40′ deep down the center of the pit floor, nearly 200′ feet across, 4/10s of a mile long down valley; The pit is flooded with abandoned mine drainage that enters the pit in several fractured areas along one side of the highwall to the camera right, looking down valley (north) of where we were shooting. The abandoned mine water has an alkaline pH of 6.2, very low acidity levels, and iron hydroxide levels that exceed 40 parts per million (40 mg/L). The orange-ish, red color exhibited in the pit and along the highwall’s edge is precipitated iron oxide that has dropped our of solution and deposited naturally on the rocks around the site and at the base of the natural vegetation that has grown around the water’s edge. Introduced the concept of native wetlands native vegetation or phytoremediation to treat the polluted abandoned mine drainage (AMD) utilizing plants such as cattails (typha latifolia), that have extensive, far reaching and dense rhizome root systems at the base of their stalks to filter out the iron oxide as it passes through the plants underwater roots.



(above) The Old Forge AMD Borehole (above) -This is a 50-80 million gallons per day discharge directly into the Lackawanna River, a major tributary to the Susquehanna River that mainly flows from Susquehanna County in the Forest City area at the very northern tip of the Anthracite Coal fields through Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, mainly through the City of Scranton and Old Forge, with several smaller coal town communities in between the Lackawanna Valley.

Continue reading the full post.

Krista Schlyer's Chesapeake Bay RAVE Video Blog

Photographer Krista Schlyer has been photographing in Maryland for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE for about eight days now. She has been on a pontoon boat on the Anacostia River, looking at native fish populations, and exploring Rock Creek Park for stormwater problems.

Says Krista, "I'm hoping to use my images to raise awareness for the Chesapeake Bay watershed in hopes that we can amend the Clean Water Act to ensure that we actually do the kind of things that we've been saying for a long time that we want to do to protect the Chesapeake Bay.  And I'm hoping to show people this is a beautiful, beautiful place…that people can go visit and hopefully learn to love and want to protect. And also to show people just how bad it is because it's a really bad situation right now."

Join Krista and help amend the Clean Water Act.

Read Krista's post "Rediscovering the Anacostia."

Tripods in the Mud - Dragon Run

Following is an excerpt of a post by Justin Black, Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP).

This summer, iLCP is conducting one of its trademark RAVEs (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the fight to pass the Chesapeake Clean Water Act. Justin's post, originally published on the iLCP blog June 12, 2010, refers to an assignment for The Nature Conservancy on Virginia's Dragon Run Swamp, in his words, "making it an interesting point of reference as iLCP prepares to launch a Chesapeake Bay RAVE in summer 2010."

Our thanks to Justin and iLCP for permission to reprint this excerpt.

The Dragon rippled as I slid the kayak out into the swamp’s caramel brown water. The still quiet of pre-dawn was broken only by the song of a prothonotary warbler, a croaking bullfrog, the sudden splash of a jumping sunfish. Gliding along on the glassy surface past lush swamp plants – arrow arum, water lilies, swamp rose, the lovely purple poker-like blooms of pickerelweed – and under the spreading branches of bald cypress, their conical “knees” emerging from the water in rows like the Dragon’s teeth, I felt completely removed from the Tidewater Virginia farmland that encircled me beyond the forest. Entering this place was like time-travel.

I had come to photograph the landscape of Dragon Run Swamp, the wild centerpiece Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, on assignment for the The Nature Conservancy which has recently protected the watershed in a Manhattan-sized conservancy, Virginia’s largest at 20,000 acres (80.9 km2). As one of the healthiest and cleanest wetlands in the Chesapeake region, this exceptional conservancy serves as a model for other watersheds around the Bay, making it an interesting point of reference as iLCP prepares to launch a Chesapeake Bay RAVE in summer 2010. This unique ecosystem has been ranked second in ecological significance among 232 areas investigated in a Smithsonian Institution study which covered 12,600 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay region. It’s easy to see why.

The water teems with fifty-five species of fish, including the young of several anadromous species – striped bass, American shad, alewife and blueback herring among others – that migrate here from the Bay or the Atlantic in the spring to spawn. Chain pickerel, warmouth sunfish, and white catfish are some of the native fish species that call the Dragon their year-round home. The watershed is a birder’s paradise as well, with various songbirds, bald eagles, osprey, heron, and egrets in abundance. It’s an important stop for migratory waterfowl as well, and shy wood ducks are particularly fond of the cover provided in the swamp. In the forest, wild turkeys are frequently seen… or only heard.

Ebony jewel-wing damselflies with bodies of metallic blue and green warm themselves in the sun’s first rays and then flit from leaf to leaf. Water beetles cruise narrow channels between green stems, and large crayfish take refuge in burrows scattered along the banks of the swamp.

Before me was a view that Captain John Smith could have seen in 1607, and it would have been essentially unchanged for millennia before. Today, on the east coast of the United States, landscapes like Dragon Run are not simply rare. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy, the Friends of Dragon Run, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Dragon Run watershed provides a unique window into the past, and one that – if we embrace its lessons – will help lead us on the path to a sustainable future.

To read Justin’s complete blog, visit the iLCP blog, EXPOSE. Watch the Chesapeake Bay Foundation blog for future posts by photographers during the Chesapeake Bay RAVE.