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Hopes that manatee will hasten home

Cool seasonal waters moving in would kill it

By Brian Ballou and Beth Daley
Globe Staff / September 15, 2009

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First it was the great white sharks.

Now, the latest Cape Cod end-of-summer marine saga stars an adventurous Florida manatee with a wrinkled muzzle who has become a minor East Coast celebrity during his estimated 1,500-mile journey north.

Spotted yesterday afternoon in Rock Harbor, Orleans, the animal charmed a few onlookers before disappearing under the surface. Scientists hope it’s heading south: Cool seasonal waters moving in would soon kill it.

“We’re going to give nature a chance to bring it back home,’’ to Florida waters, said Katie Touhey Moore, manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare marine mammal rescue program based in Yarmouth Port. “But if it doesn’t, we are already planning a rescue.’’

The wayward sea cow is the third to make it to New England in the last four years, charming civilians but baffling scientists who do not know why the elephant-related animals are showing up in small but increasing numbers this far north. Warmer water is one possible explanation, scientists say, and this year’s record warmth in coastal waters could certainly be a lure.

Harbormasters and researchers say people are part of the equation: They have reports of homeowners placing hoses in water for the half-ton animals to drink fresh water from and feeding them from shore.

“What we really want to do is minimize human contact and give it no reason to stay,’’ said Moore.

According to the international fund, scientists believe the animal is a well-known manatee named Ilya, first photographed in 1994 by the US Geological Survey and until this summer never spotted outside southern Florida.

Yet on July 22, he was seen in the Chesapeake Bay, causing a minor publicity sensation. Then, he was seen off New Jersey on Aug. 23, and Connecticut on Sept. 2 before a cruise ship owner spotted him off Cape Cod Saturday.

Manatees, with their flippers with fingernails and fat spoon-shaped tails, are beloved Florida offshore residents that can live 60 years. The species existed in plentiful herds that have been reduced to around 4,000 individuals because of loss of habitat along the Florida coast. On the federal endangered species list, they also are easily injured or killed by boat propellers, red tide, or cold temperatures.

The animals can travel 20 to 30 miles a day. In 1994, a famous manatee named Chessie was airlifted out of Chesapeake Bay and transported to Florida only to be found off Point Judith, R.I., the following year. That time, Chessie made it home by himself.

Last year, a manatee nicknamed Dennis died of hypothermia after a crew plucked it from Cape Cod waters and was attempting to deliver it to Sea World Orlando.

Scientists say Ilya appears healthier than Dennis. Steve Lehr, assistant curator of mammals for Sea World Orlando, said it is hard to say why manatees are venturing so far north.

At least early yesterday, before it was spotted in Orleans. there was optimism the manatee’s disappearance meant it had headed home.

Rick Lemont, Dennis’s assistant harbormaster, wrote a note outside the harbormaster’s office at Sesuit Harbor that said, “Manatee has gone home.’’ Lemont said that dozens of people had knocked at the door asking about the manatee.

Joe Buscone first spotted the manatee as he helped sightseers aboard the Lobster Roll, his cruise boat in Dennis. At first, he thought the large shadowy figure in the water was a harbor seal.

Moore, of the rescue team, said it was not clear yet when a decision would be made to rescue the manatee. While water temperatures will help dictate their decision, they also have to find the animal.

“It’s very difficult to plan a rescue,’’ she said. “We’re hoping it gets home on its own.’’