A New Jersey Traveling Manatee Pops up again in South Florida
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Nancy Sadusky, Save the Manatee Club
February 2014

manatee Ilya
One of the photos taken of Ilya in the Florida Keys in September 2013. If you look closely, you'll see the white scar on his head that helps researchers to identify him.
(Photo courtesy Marc Neilson)

We were excited recently to receive sighting news of Ilya, one of the manatees in our adoption program and famous for his rescue from the cold waters of New Jersey in October 2009. Like many East Coast snowbirds, Ilya has apparently been spending his time hanging out in the Florida Keys lately.

Monica Ross, a manatee researcher with Sea to Shore Alliance, sent us the update on Ilya and explained that he had been fitted with a tracking device or "tag" in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in February 2013. Ilya was equipped with a GPS tag to help researchers better understand manatee movement between warm water sites during the winter. Unfortunately, Ilya lost his transmitter a week later after moving north into Deerfield Beach. Research staff were unable to locate him until a citizen called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's hotline number at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) in September 2013 to report a manatee in Marathon Key "with something wrapped around his lower body." That "something" was part of the tag assembly that fits around the base of the manatee’s tail. Soon after the Marathon Key report, there were additional sightings of Ilya in Geiger Key and Big Pine Island. He was located and retagged on November 24, 2013.

Manatee researchers are able to recognize Ilya because of a scar on his head and his mutilated tail. Ilya was first sighted when he was a calf after he had received a boat strike that removed the bottom of his tail. Within another year, he had sustained a second boat strike that left him with a white scar on the middle of his head.

When Ilya was young, he befriended another manatee named Napoleon, and he was named by a biologist who was a fan of the 1960s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The show featured two characters: American Napoleon Solo and Russian Illya Kuryakin.

Ilya had been known to biologists for about 15 years before he was documented outside of Florida. Although a few manatees have been known to range as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts, these sightings are generally rare. But in the summer of 2009, Ilya left his south Florida home and traveled north. He was documented in the Chesapeake Bay, New Jersey, and Connecticut before being seen in Cape Cod in mid-September and Connecticut in late September.

In early October 2009, there were no northerly sightings of Ilya, and everyone hoped that he had finally decided to head south for the winter. But on Thursday, October 15th, Ilya startled a refinery worker by appearing at a warm water outflow at the ConocoPhillips Bayway Refinery near Linden, New Jersey. At that time of the year, water temperatures in the Arthur Kill tidal strait, where Ilya was located, were estimated to be between 60 and 64 degrees. Typically, manatees cannot tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees for long periods of time. The warm water discharge from the oil refinery heated the surrounding waters to 75 degrees, which is what likely attracted Ilya.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned a rescue for that weekend but were thwarted by a nor'easter, which brought heavy wind and rains and made conditions too dangerous. Volunteers from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a rescue group in nearby Brigantine, tried to keep Ilya near the outflow by feeding him, but he disappeared for about a week before he was sighted again by refinery workers on October 26th.

manatee Ilya
Ilya is rescued from New Jersey's chilly waters in October 2009.
(Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Stranding Center)

The rescue team quickly reassembled and was finally able to capture Ilya on October 27th after four attempts over seven long hours. Ilya was transported to an indoor heated pool at the stranding center and given care by veterinarians. Surprisingly, he was in pretty good health, suffering only a mild case of cold stress syndrome. After being cleared for travel, Ilya flew back to Florida on a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 cargo aircraft. He was then transported to the Miami Seaquarium where he underwent a short rehabilitation and was released near Miami on December 15, 2009.

A group of more than 40 people made Ilya's 2009 rescue a success, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership, who coordinated the rescue, as well as staff and volunteers from the New Jersey Marine Mammal Stranding Center, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Miami Seaquarium, and Point Pleasant Dive and Rescue Team, as well as government officials, refinery workers, and veterinarians. ConocoPhillips employees operated boats and a crane for the rescue effort, and the refinery provided a heated tent with food and hot coffee for the rescue workers.

Since his release, Ilya has been sighted in Florida's Biscayne Bay following the very cold winter of 2010, and he has remained in the south Florida region. Now, thanks to the watchful citizens of the Florida Keys, Ilya has been retagged and his movements will be documented for a time by manatee researchers. "Without these valuable sightings by the public, we would not have been able to relocate Ilya on November 24th and retag him with a new GPS tag," said Monica Ross. "We are very excited to have the opportunity to obtain manatee movement data for the lower Florida Keys through this impressively long-range traveling male manatee."

If you spot a manatee wearing a "tag" or tracking device, call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC or #FWC on your cell phone. Please note when and where the manatee was seen and the position of the color bands on the transmitter.

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