On the 40th anniversary of Beautiful Swimmers, William Warner's 1976 classic book about the Blue Crab, filmmaker Sandy Cannon-Brown teams up with Chesapeake Bay environmental writer Tom Horton to see how crabs are faring in the bay. Today's Chesapeake is not the same bay in which Warner conducted his inquiries of Callinectes sapidus, the iconic blue crab, in the 1960s and '70s. Yet much remains.
It is still possible to revisit Warner's storied haunts, even to go crabbing with characters he introduced in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book. In Beautiful Swimmers Revisited, award-winning writer Tom Horton picks up where Warner left off 40 years ago. On Smith Island, Horton and his film partners go scraping with Morris Goodwin Marsh who took Warner fishing in the thick seagrass meadows around the island in the early 1970s. Morris, now in his late 70s, is still going strong, putting in long, hard days that few men of any age could sustain.
On Deal Island, the documentary team meets up with Grant Corbin, the focus of two chapters of Warner's book. They go out, as Corbin does every day, before dawn for long days of "peeler potting" – fishing unbaited crabs pots in the waters of Tangier Sound. We know far more about crabs scientifically than in 1976; but there are far fewer crabs—roughly half as many. Still, the fact that we can now accurately estimate crab populations gives real hope that we can continue to manage them sustainably.
Horton's journey takes him to all reaches of the Bay, from the York River in Virginia to the Patapsco in Maryland as he visits with watermen harvesting crabs with pots, nets, scrapes and trotlines; scientists conducting winter dredge surveys to predict next year's abundance and research to define the pressures affecting the crab from predators to climate change, and managers who struggle to balance the preservation of the watermen's culture with the preservation the blue crab.