For one Florida manatee, there’s no place like home.
Ilya, the celebrated 1,100-pound sea cow, got a lift home in a U.S. Coast Guard cargo plane today after a three-month vacation north, including a late-summer stay off Cape Cod . Rescuers stepped in after the young manatee got lost in a dangerously cold New Jersey river.
“Everything went really smoothly. He was pretty still, kind of groggy,” said Dr. Maya Rodriguez, a manatee expert and Miami Seaquarium veterinarian, who rode with Ilya on the plane. “[Manatees] are very stoic when they’re being transported.”
The nearly 10-foot-long mammal is now relaxing at the Seaquarium in a warm tank with a new friend, a 2-year-old orphaned female rescued off the coast of Florida a day earlier, Rodriguez said.
“Right away they were touching noses, already hanging out,” Rodriguez said. “It’ll be good for him because he hasn’t had company for a while.”
Ilya likely hasn’t seen another manatee since mid-July, when he was first spotted in the Chesapeake Bay . Over the next two months, he meandered up the East Coast, ending up off Dennis and Orleans in mid-September. (Scientists identify him by distinctive notches in his tail.)
Then, after scientists and wildlife officials had assumed he was safely back in Florida’s warmth, Ilya startled a New Jersey oil refinery worker on Oct. 15. He had apparently been lost in the deadly cold waters of Arthur Kill, a river splitting New Jersey and Staten Island. River temperatures were dipping into the 50s and manatees are in danger of hypothermia in waters cooler than 68 degrees.
“Their immune system shuts down, their intestinal system shuts down … Skin begins fluffing off like frostbite.” Rodriguez said.
But Ilya had found a lifeline in a warm tributary, huddling near a refinery outfall pipe discharging 75-degree water.
Wildlife officials quickly converged on the scene, gearing up for a rescue effort. But after a storm delayed the rescue, Ilya slipped away.
“He had wandered off and we had no idea where he was,” said Chuck Underwood, spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “Then earlier this week, he showed back up at this same creek and hung around. We mobilized very quickly and took advantage of the opportunity.”
Within three days, rescuers had Ilya at the Atlantic City airport, loading the half-ton beast onto a Coast Guard plane that had flown up from North Carolina.
“We do training flights routinely, and this was an opportunity to do pilot training ... as well as fulfill our statutory obligations,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lorraine Brooks.
Rodriguez said Ilya was in good health, considering his exposure to the cold. And at 10, he has 50 to 80 more years to live. She expected him to be released within weeks.
But she cannot say for sure why he wandered off on an estimated 2,000-mile journey.
It may be global warming or population expansion, she said, but most likely it’s just curiosity.
“Some of these males go exploring during the summer. They venture out, looking for new mating herds, following females,” Rodriguez said. “They’re what we call pioneers.”
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