Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ilya "HOME" for Christmas!

By Jack Nicas, Boston Globe Correspondent

After a long, strange trip that took him up and down the East Coast, with stops in Cape Cod, New Jersey, and Maryland, the famed manatee Ilya is home for the holidays in the warm waters off of Florida.

A crane at the Miami Seaquarium lifted the 1,100-pound mammal into Biscayne Bay this morning.
"It went really smoothly. He was great," said Dr. Maya Rodriguez, a Seaquarium veterinarian and manatee specialist, who helped rescue Ilya in New Jersey just before Halloween. "Before he took off, he stopped and turned and took a breath for everybody."
The last time Ilya dipped a flipper in the 77-degree Florida waters, he was just another 10-foot male in a pool of 3,800 manatees. But when he ventured north in July (in a quest to get a mate, scientists speculate) he became an aquatic celebrity.
On July 22, he was seen swimming in the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next two months, he navigated up the coast and was eventually spotted several times off Dennis and Orleans in mid-September, more than 1,000 miles from home.
Then he disappeared for a month. Scientists assumed he had fled back to Florida's warmth. But on Oct. 15, he startled an oil refinery worker in New Jersey, who found him hanging out near a warm-water discharge pipe. Two weeks later, after he escaped once, rescuers captured the crafty 16-year-old and flew him back to Miami on a Coast Guard C-130 cargo aircraft.
"He's definitely one of the most traveled manatees in Florida," said aquatic biologist Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club. "It's pretty rare to go that far."
For the past six weeks, Ilya has recovered from minor symptoms of cold exposure in a warm tank in Jimmy Buffett country -- at the Seaquarium, which is on Biscayne Bay. His instincts to find and huddle under the pipe in New Jersey saved his life, Rodriguez said.
"He had a real quick turnaround," Rose said, "really as good as you could hope for, given the circumstances."
In the tank, Ilya befriended a year-old orphaned manatee, Rodriguez said.
"He was really social. He was good at grabbing lettuce with his flippers, and she figured out that trick from him," Rodriguez said. "He taught her a few tricks."
But Ilya, named after a character from the 1960s television show "The Man from UNCLE," is now off on his own again. And he'd better be careful, Rose said.
So far this year, at least 91 manatees have been killed by watercraft near Florida, four short of the record for one year. Ilya has been struck twice by boats, leaving a white scar on his head and notches on his tail, which is how scientists identify him in the wild.
The Florida coast has become so hazardous for manatees, the Seaquarium's rehabilitation tank is almost always full, Rodriguez said.
Four hours after Ilya's release, a female manatee that lost a flipper took his place.
"As soon as we get them healthy we have to let them go, because they keep coming in," Rodriguez said. "It's a revolving door."
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