Ilya the Travelling Manattee Missing Again

Ilya, the manatee that reappeared off Staten Island Thursday–way too far north for his safety–has gone missing again, thwarting any attempt to rescue him from the cold waters. Ilya ate a whole case of lettuce “and was last seen going back into the river,” says Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This was late yesterday afternoon, and there’s been no sighting of the animal since then.”

Ilya, a 16-year-old manatee distinguished by his boat scars (a white one on his head and a missing chunk of tail), surprised biologists this summer by migrating all the way up to Cape Cod from his Florida home. Now he’s racing the cold weather–and seems to have been entranced by the false promise of warmth from the warm water run-off of an oil refinery in Elizabeth, NJ. The spot that he’s at is warm enough, says Underwood, but the rest of the Arthur Kill tidal estuary dips below his requisite 68 degrees. That means he should be in North Carolina by now, according to NOAA’s water temperature map. That’s about 200 miles, or three or four days manatee travel.

Biologists figured Ilya was safely headed to warmer waters after he wasn’t seen since an appearance in Milford, CT, on September  26. Then he showed up in a heavily industrial area. Underwood won’t say exactly where–but it’s guarded private property anyway.

The Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Station has plans to rescue him–if they can find him and catch

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Biologists Try to Rescue Ilya the Manatee from Elizabeth, NJ

 Ilya, the manatee who swam all the way up to Cape Cod from Florida this summer, may need to be rescued today from the stormy, cold waters off Elizabeth, NJ, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood says. The endangered 1,000-pound manatee was positively identified yesterday from photos taken near a refinery in Elizabeth, a heavily industrial part of New York harbor near Staten Island.

For weeks biologists and manatee lovers wondered where Ilya was, hoping he was making it back down to Florida, where manatees need to spend the winter to keep warm enough. He was last seen in Milford, CT, on September 26. So, everyone figured–or at least hoped–that he would be down at least around the Carolinas by now.

Then yesterday, Underwood says, the Wildlife Service got a call: “We’ve got your manatee.” A quick consultation with U.S. Geological Survey NOAA, which keeps an elaborate database of 2,000-some manatees known by their boating scars, confirmed it was Ilya. His run in with boats have made him easy to ID: he has a big chunk taken out of his tail and a white scar on his head. Nicole Adimey, who runs the manatee rescue and rehabilitation program says that he still is relatively lucky for a manatee: he’s never before had to be brought in for treatment.

Right now the wildlife service is trying to keep Ilya in place at a private, undisclosed refinery while a Nor’easter storm blows through. He was attracted to the

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Meet the Manatee Profiler

When I heard of biologists using manatees’ many boat scars to tell them apart, I pictured a fast CSI-like computer sorting flippers like fingerprints until, seconds later, MATCH flashed on the screen. Unfortunately, says wildlife biologist Cathy Beck, who runs the program for the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s a lot more slow and still requires a human to make a match. (Cops say the same thing about fingerprint matching, too.)

“Years ago we looked at various software,” she says. “It’s way out of the kind of budget we’d ever get.”

So the Geological Survey mantains a meticulous database of 2,200 known manatees known as the Manatee Photo Identification System (MIPS). Of those 300 are known to be dead. With a U.S. population roughly estimated at about 3,000 to 4,000, that could be half the population. But the facts about manatees and their populations are so uncertain that Beck doesn’t like to speculate.

Instead, she’s trying to make sure everything in the database is certain. So, she only allows in manatees that have at least two distinguishing features. There has to be pictures of each manatee’s tail, back and each side. In theory that could be done with just four pictures, she says “but that’s never happened.” And then the match has to be verified by two humans. Complicating the process, manatees are constantly aquiring new injuries and changing their appearance. “We need to keep up,” Beck says. “A new injury may obliterate an old feature.”

At least two

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Ilya the Manatee Last Seen Headed Towards New York City

Manatee (not Ilya) in Titusville, FL,Courtesy of Dave’s Digits ArtWithRays.

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

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Manatees Making a Home in Mobile Bay, Alabama

We tend to think of manatees as living only in Florida and just barely hanging on there, but some exciting new research show they may be spreading to nearby Gulf states. Dr. Ruth Carmichael, senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab near Mobile, AL, just tagged Alabama’s first officicial manatee resident. You can call the half-ton female “Bama.”

The big question is whether the endangered West Indian Manatee has been here all along, unbeknownst to people, or whether they’re expanding their range. Are people seeing more manatees because they’re looking? Nobody knows..  In 2007 Carmichael started the Mobile Manatees Sighting Network, which gives people a one-stop shop to call or email anytime they see a manatee. In just the first year people reported as many sightings as they had over the previous 30 years.

Carmichael hears from two types of people who live or work near the water. One has never seen them and doesn’t believe they’re there. The other tells her, “‘yeah, my kids have been swimming with them for 30 years.’” She then tries to gently convince them not to play with the manatees. Or give them the fresh water they crave. Since the manatee’s biggest enemy is boat propellers, if you teach them that it’s fun or profitable to hang around people, they have a greater chance of getting hurt. And technically, if you change an endangered species’ behavior, it’s a federal offense. Carmichael doesn’t want to play cop, but would love it if

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The Cove: By Seeing the Movie, You’re Participating in the Effort

The Cove is a movie about dolphin slaughter in Japan, but the filmmakers have the sense to know that an hour of dolphins being harpooned, flailing and bleeding to death would be unwatchable. Instead they tell the fascinating, adventure story of trying to get footage of a slaughter of dolphins that Taiji, Japan tries desperately to keep secret.

Spoiler alert: they get the footage. And here’s where the audience feels like they’re participating. The point of the effort is to get the word (and video) out on how horrific and unnecessary the process of killing 23,000 dolphins a year is. It’s an act of faith by the filmmakers that once the world knows this will have to stop. And just by witnessing The Cove, you fee like you’re part of their journey.

They also list things you can do to help. You can write President Obama and the Japanese. You can donate. You can carefully choose your seafood–for your own health and for the fish’s sake.

One of the actions they suggest is that you pledge not to go see dolphins in captivity. (The sale of show dolphins supports dolphin slaughter.)

Here are some places you can go see dolphins in the wild instead.

To see more animals go to

Mexico trying to save the last 150 vaquita porpoises

Mexico just announced it would spend $16 million to get fishermen in the Bay of California to learn not to catch the vaquita porpoise, which is down to only about 150 animals. A website dedicated to saving the vaquita estimates 39 to 84 die each year in nets.

There are so few left that some have even argued they’re extinct, so why bother trying to save them? The Vaquita Marina group says people still do see them–and catch them in nets–so they know there are still some around. They’ve even come up with a handy map of vaquita sightings.They say that the cartoon-faced porpoise “can not be easily observed, since it flees when boats appear and remains under the water for several minutes without having to come out to breathe.”

Go to the Best Places to See Anaimals in CaliforniaWhere to See Dolphins

If there really are 150 left, the program amounts to $10,000 per vaquita–and a good example of how expensive it is to save a species if we let it dwindle so low. What they’ll actually be spending the money on, according to Discovery News, is paying fisherman $4,500 not to fish in the reserve, $30,000 to learn safer techniques and $60,000 to turn in their boat and quit fishing.

To see more animals go to

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Pay to Play with a Seal Lion in Boston

New England Aquarium, Boston, Play with Marine Mammals

The New England Aquarium lets you play with their sea lions and seals. In the last few years a number of animal rescue groups and traditional aquariums have hit on the idea of, well, basically, pimping out their animals. You pay a little extra and get a little extra contact, how much depends on how much you pay.The New England Aquarium has two programs. For $30 you can feed seals, but for $125 you get to help feed, entertain and train sea lions, seals and maybe a large turtle.It’s a small group–just three–and the real trainers are incredibly gracious in letting you enjoy the fun part of their job. Still, I felt a little bit idiotic since it was me and two kids. (They say it’s about half and half adults to kids. And that often parents bring kids, but it’s obviously really for mom or dad.)We started off with the sea lions, who are soon leaving for Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. We got to see the sea lions’ kitchen and warm indoor pool. When we went outside, the sea lions, Guthrie, an 838 pound mush, and Ballou, a younger, smaller and more shy sea lion.Guthrie watches the crowds and came by as soon as we walked in–assuming it was feeding time. We got to feel his thick wet fur, massive fins. We each put fish in his mouth, which was big but full of worn down, black teeth so not

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