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Ilya the Manatee Last Seen Headed Towards New York City

The last time anyone saw Ilya the manatee on Sept. 25, he was hanging around the docks of Milford, CT, (the middle of the state’s coast) presumably headed towards New York City and then the warm water he needs in Florida. I got to write a fun story about Ilya for New York Magazine and to talk to a bunch of manatee rescuers, identifiers and caretakers along the way.

Ilya may have already passed New York since Milford is only 60-some miles away. Manatees normally only swim about 3 mph–aside from short burst of up to 20 mph–and they sleep half the day.

If Ilya turns out to be hanging out in New England still, he’s in trouble. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might try to rescue him if he lingers. Last year they tried to save Dennis the manatee from Dennis, MA, by trucking him 27 hours to Florida in the back of a rental truck, surrounded by a heating blanket and medical care. He died, but Nicole Adimey, who runs the USFWS rescue program, says that he was in bad shape to start; they can truck manatees around the country. “They’re pretty resiilent animals, actually,” she says. They would’ve grabbed him sooner if he stayed in one place.  Terry Clen, the Dennis harbor master, says Adimey instructed him to do what is normally forbidden with manatees: give him a hose to keep him happy and in place.

Clen says this year Ilya looked healthier and so Adimey told him to be sure the manatee didn’t get food or drink so he’d keep moving. Clen says the toughest part of New York harbor (aside from the busy boat traffic) will be Hell Gate, the narrow passage to the East River with tough currents.
We only know of a handful of manatees making it through New York harbor. In 1995, biologists were so alarmed to see a manatee as far north as Chesapeake Bay they named him Chessie and flew him home. Tagged, he went up up the next two years, reaching Rhode Island and passing right by the Statue of Liberty, says Cathy Beck, a wildlife biologist who runs the manatee identification program for the USGS.
About every other year since, a manatee spotted north of the Chesapeake and all of the ones they’ve ID’d have been males, Beck says. In 2006, one popped up next to Chelsea Piers, then near the Tappan Zee Bridge in Westchester. Did he miss the turn for Long Island Sound? Maybe–but a manatee did make it to Cape Cod that year. And manatees have been spotted by Montauk, meaning they bypassed Manhattan.
Manatees were spotted in the Chesapeake in the 1800s, Beck says. Did they used to come here before we killed them all? Is global warming letting them push north? Are these just bachelors looking far and wide for a female? Or is Florida getting crowded with manatees because they’ve recovered so much? All of those are going theories, but nobody knows.
Becks, like all manatee scientists, likes to emphasize how little we know about the endangered, enigmatic species everyone loves. We don’t know why they travel or how many there are–or were. We think it’s 4,000 or so and numbers are up. But, Save the Manatee doesn’t want anyone to get too self-congratulatory about manatee recovery.
Becks was surprised when she figured out it was Ilya heading north. She’s seen pictures of him for years–all either around Miami, where he was first sighted with his mom in 1994, or more recently in the Keys. Already a boat propeller had taken a hunk of his tail. Ilya played with another manatee calf named Napolean, so a biologist who was a fan of The Man from Uncle named him Ilya. The next year he took a boat in the forehead, which left him with a white circle there. Those make him easy to identify. Biologists know he’s tried to mate, says Becks. But since male manatees for a mating herd that chases a female, we don’t know if he was successful.

The few manatees that have ventured north have peculiarly stopped at the same towns (Dennis, MA; Port Judith, RI, for example) and in some cases even visited the same storm drains for a freshwater drink.”We’re seeing them at the same places because those are the best places for manatees,” says Becks–not because they’re following a trail. They can detect subtle differences in how warm or salty water is. They need to live close to the shore to eat leaves and stay warm in winter. That means they’re around boat docks in Florida. “It’s not unusual for Ilya to come into a marina,” Becks says. “That’s just what manatees in Florida do.”

We may never know how Ilya’s journey home went. One manatee went 14 years between sightings, Beck says. Or he could pop back up at the dock he drank from in New Jersey. I hope somebody sees him soon and it’s down south.

Want to see manatees? Your best bet is by power plants in Florida in the winter. Check out this map of where to see manatees and other unusual animals.

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