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Ilya the Manatee May Be Going Wrong Way–Back to NYC

Ilya, the missing manatee, may be headed the wrong way–back up to New York City, instead of down south to Florida and the warm water he needs to survive. Someone saw what they thought was a manatee near Bayonne, NJ, but by the time rescuers came out, there was no animal, says Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of Brigantine’s Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which would rescue Ilya if they could just find and catch him.

FWC photo by Tom Reinert

Ilya, who is 16 and known for his missing tail chunk and a white scar on his head, befuddled scientists by swimming from his native Miami all the way up to Cape Cod this summer. Now he needs to get to waters at least 68 degrees–the Carolinas at this time of year–or he could die.

The last time anyone definitely saw Ilya was when he ate a crate of lettuce from biologists outside the Conoco Phillips refinery in Linden, NJ, last Friday. Then he disappeared into the dark, cold waters of the Arthur Kill, the 10-mile tidal estuary between New Jersey and Staten Island. If that was him near Bayonne, that puts him in the Kill Van Kull, a shorter passage that’s a few miles closer to the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan and the heavy traffic of the Port of Newark.

But rescuers are dubious it really was Ilya. It’s not so much that they think there’s a second manatee up here–though one did spend the summer in Raritan Bay. Schoelkopf says he didn’t get the spotter’s name (and manatee identification credentials) and the call came in eight hours after the supposed encounter. Marine creatures can just be hard to ID. “I’ve had Coast Guard people tell me there’s a whale and calf trying to get up a waterfall and we get there and it’s two logs,” he says. Manatees are such a rare sight, people–especially northerners–could easily get it wrong. When seals turn up in winter, Schoelkopf says, he gets calls about “sea lions, walruses, anything.”

Ilya was drawn to Linden by the plant’s warm water discharge, so Schoelkopf called four power plants on the Jersey Shore to ask them to look out for Ilya. In Florida, power plants have become such a popular hang-out in the winter, biologists from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission use the gathering to take a census. The New Jersey plants area already on the look-out for stranded sea turtles, who are also drawn to their warm water, Schoelkopf explains. (A rare and endangered Green Sea Turtle recently turned up in Rumson with cold shock, he says.) In northern New Jersey, the Linden plant is the only one.

If anyone does see the manatee, the stranding network is ready to go with a net at a moment’s notice. They have a salt water they put on the ideal manatee temperature of 74 this week just for Ilya. If they can catch him, they’ll bring him to Brigantine and warm him up for a few days before getting him to Florida, probably by an awaiting Coast Guard cargo plane.

If you see the manatee, call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center’s 24-hour number: (609) 266-0538. Try to take a picture and email it to

Wanna see a manatee not in danger? Try these places.

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