Friday, October 30, 2009

Ilya the Manatee

Photo JOHN VANBEEKUM / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

I stand corrected on my last post. Ilya the wayward manatee was returned to South Florida and is to recuperate in the Miami Seaquarium from his ordeals in the cold waters of New Jersey. Looks like the wildlife people have the intention of returning him to the wild when he is up to it. I am glad to hear that and hope he recovers quickly now that he's back in South Florida.
Full report from the Miami Herald:

Ilya the meandering manatee was returned to Miami on Thursday, plucked from the frigid waters of the Northeast after a massive search and rescue coordinated with the precision of a military operation.

Three government agencies, a marine wildlife group, an international energy corporation and the Miami Seaquarium all pitched in to rescue the sea cow, which strayed far from its Florida home and wandered the inhospitably cold waters of Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey for months.

The gentle giant concluded its epic odyssey Thursday in a concrete water tank at the Seaquarium, where he will spend a few weeks recovering from mild cold stress and weight loss.

``He's really not bad,'' said Maya Rodriguez, a Seaquarium veterinarian who flew to New Jersey on Monday to help rescue the wayfaring sea cow, which was in danger of succumbing to hypothermia.

``It took about 30 people and a crane and a huge, long net,'' Rodriguez said of the operation.

The 1,100-pound, 9-foot-long manatee was trapped with the net, dragged on shore and lifted by crane aboard a truck, then transported to a warm water pool at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a rescue facility in New Jersey.

From there, Ilya was taken by truck to Atlantic City International Airport, loaded onto a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 cargo airplane and flown to Opa-locka Airport.

The adventurous sea cow arrived at the Seaquarium inside a white box truck.

About 20 people hoisted Ilya into the water tank, where floating heads of romaine lettuce awaited.

Robert Rose, a curator for Miami Seaquarium, estimated the rescue operation likely cost ``tens of thousands of dollars.''

As Ilya munched on a head of romaine lettuce in the water tank, he looked none the worse for the wear and certainly oblivious to the months-long, multistate search that led to his capture.

Biologists had been searching for Ilya for months. Tagged by Fish and Wildlife and given his name a decade ago, Ilya has distinctive scarring on his side and is missing a chunk of tail.

Photographed by a sailor in Maryland, fed sandwiches by locals in Massachusetts and gawked at by suburbanites in New York, Ilya's adventures spanned much of the Northeast.

Manatees are migratory marine mammals, but they're supposed to return to their warm water homes when winter approaches. They're susceptible once the water temperature dips below 65 degrees.

The temperature in the New Jersey waterway was in the 50s.

But Ilya found a warm spot -- right next to the outflow pipe that emptied into a waterway at ConocoPhillips' Bayway refinery in Linden, N.J.

There, the water was a balmy 75.

The rescue operation was launched Tuesday and involved the efforts of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, ConocoPhillips and the Seaquarium. Three times they used boats to trap Ilya. The fourth was the charm.

Rodriguez said biologists started blood work on Ilya and gave him antibiotics.

He'll be monitored, to make sure he feeds and swims properly with a female manatee calf rescued from Port Everglades on Wednesday. U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists will determine when and where Ilya can be released into the wild, Rodriguez said.

Rose could not explain why Ilya strayed from his traditional winter habitat but said that more manatees are being spotted far from home.

``There are a lot of theories on why these animals are moving around,'' he said. ``One of them is that there's so many of them now.''

Rose said biologists counted about 3,600 manatees in Florida this year. About 10 years ago, he said, there were about 2,700 manatees in the state.

Ilya may be a ``pioneer,'' Rodriguez said, adding that young, male manatees are likely to explore new territory for food and mates, particularly as competition grows with the population.

Most, however, return home on their own.

Link to Miami Herald article.

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