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Susquehanna Life

Our Natural World: The Time is Now - Save the Chesapeake Bay

The challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay are similar to those confronting estuaries around the world.

By Erica L. Shames

It’s the largest estuary in North America, and the third-largest in the world. Over 500 million pounds of seafood are harvested from it every year. More than 3,000 migratory and resident wildlife species make it their home, and more than 100,000 streams, creeks and rivers run throughout its watershed. The Chesapeake Bay is magnificent, and it’s imperiled. The time has come for an intervention.

The Time is Now: Save the Chesapeake Bay

Since colonial times, the Chesapeake Bay—which stretches across 64,000 square miles in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—has lost half of its forested shorelines, over half of its wetlands, nearly 80 percent of its underwater grasses and more than 98 percent of its oysters.

The challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay—growing human population, pollution and land development—are similar to those confronting estuaries around the world. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, from agriculture, sewage treatment plants and urban and suburban runoff, and air pollution from cars, factories and power plants, destroy habitat and killing aquatic life. The bay and many of its rivers and streams are designated “dirty waters” by the Environmental Protection Agency, which means they no longer provide a healthy habitat for oysters, bass and other aquatic life.   

All of these statistics led Michael Hanes, president emeritus of The Whitaker Center, to determine the time was right to put resources behind a large-screen film about estuaries, watersheds and water resources, starring the Chesapeake Bay.

“From the very beginning, our goal was to create a film about water issues that would capture the imagination and curiosity of students, and ignite their interest in science,” said Hanes. “At the very least, it’s my hope that this film will inspire successive generations to become life stewards of this critical resource.”

Back story

Jeff Corwin served as expedition leader

Expedition Chesapeake: A Journey of Discovery, the first giant-screen film about the bay, tells the story of the relationships among the people, the watershed and the bay by featuring the 3,000 species that call the watershed their home. “We know that when humans are willing to address challenges, habitats and their systems do recover and plants and animals thrive,” added Hanes.

Three-time Emmy Award-winning wildlife biologist, and host of Animal PlanetJeff Corwin is the film’s narrator and expedition leader as the film takes viewers on a journey from the headwaters of the Susquehanna River in Near York through the Allegheny Mountains, and down to the sandy shores of uninhabited islands at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay.

“I have always had a love for this region,” explained Corwin about his motivation to be part of the film. “I live in Massachusetts, but I actually spend a lot of my year down here. The Chesapeake watershed and its estuary embody many triumphs and failures, and is home to some of the most miraculous ancient and imperiled creatures on the planet—like the Hellbender Salamander, the largest salamander in North America. For me, it’s a story that’s been a long time coming.”

Vital components

As the sustaining force for all life forms, water is a constant element in the film. The film captures the tranquil beauty of pristine mountain streams, the torrent of rain swollen rivers, the expanse of the open bay, the calm of protected lagoons in the shallows, the swirling action of ever present currents and the saturated monochrome mud flats with mysterious patterns of craggy oyster reefs bordered by shimmering bay grass.

“Beyond the bay’s great, time-tested veneer is a fragile ecosystem,” says Corwin. “This ecosystem can’t survive unless we intervene. Through industry and agriculture, we’ve neglected and wounded it. Through recreation, we’ve loved it too much.”


The struggle, survival and resilience of iconic and intriguing animal species, including river otters, blue crab, osprey and hellbenders, illustrate the important role humans play in the reclamation, conservation and future health of watersheds and estuaries, no matter where we live. A large proportion—in fact, 17 million people—are directly connected to the Chesapeake Bay.

Pine Creek otter

“We live in an unusual time,” said Corwin. “The U.S. has, for decades, been the global leader in science and conservation. We no longer hold that mantle. But the facts are the facts. And underneath a satellite dish of complexity are scientists on the front lines making a difference. This is their story—the story of how conservationists have brought back the otter, after a century of absence. How they’re working to save the hellbender. Old fisherman singing shanties. Those historical elements are all part of this incredible story.”

Scientific backbone


Among the scientists featured in the film are Penn State University’s Tyler Wagner and Shannon White, researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences, who study brook trout in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. Because brook trout require cool, clean water to survive, they are a barometer of the condition of streams and watersheds they inhabit, according to Wagner.

“Brook trout are a species of concern throughout much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said White. “They also are an iconic species in the headwaters, and are indicative of clean, healthy water. The origin of the Chesapeake Bay is in brook trout streams, and protecting the health of the bay starts with protecting the health of tiny headwater streams.”

Moving pictures

The film’s powerful footage is the result of work led by cinematographer James L. Niehouse, who has worked on more 30 IMAX and other large format films, including the original IMAX film, Ocean. According to executive producer Tom Curra and producer Ben Payavis II, of VIA Studios Global, Niehouse’s experience was key.

“Niehouse was critical in helping us capture nuances critical to the success of shooting in a large screen format,” said Payavis, whose work largely centers on broadcast formats. “We were fortunate to be able to rely on his talent.”

Principal photography began March 2018, said Payavis, and ended September 2018. The record rainfall experienced by the region was a factor. “There were days we were on the boat in pouring rain,” said Curra of the odyssey.

Rounding out the production team is VIA Studios Global director Greg Matkosky, a filmmaker with 35 years of creative and craft experience in film and television production regionally and nationwide.

Central message

The overarching goal of the film is to inspire caretaking of the Chesapeake Bay, says Corwin. “You can’t protect what you don’t love, and you’ll never love something if you don’t get to meet it. So this film is a formal introduction to this breathtaking, wild community. I want people to discover it, use it, explore it—in short, to be a part of it – and to inspire young children to think about science in their future, how it integrates into their lives and maybe even as a potential career. But ultimately, the film is to inspire stewardship through entertainment.”

To assist with that goal, a complete curriculum was created for teachers of all grade levels to engage students through a variety of activities, from constructing and implementing experiments to collecting and analyzing data and conducting interviews with local residents. Free access to the materials can be downloaded at

“Since we all live in a watershed, the final message of the film is that we each have a responsibility to conserve the watershed in our own backyard,” said Hanes.

Expedition Chesapeake premiered at the Whitaker Center - Harrisburg, PA in Harrisburg last March and will run through July 13. Look for it in theatres nationwide later in the year.

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