Ilya the manatee, who traveled to Cape Cod this summer via New York Harbor, finally turned up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on Friday — several hundred miles north of where he should be this time of year. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center of Brigantine had hoped to try to rescue him this weekend, but a Nor’easter came and went — taking all trace of Ilya with it. Manatees need water above 68 degrees to avoid cold stress, but instead of heading south, Ilya got comfortable in the warm runoff from an oil refinery, says U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chuck Underwood. But he’s no longer in the heavily guarded industrial spot in the tidal strait where he had been lingering.
Before Friday, no one had seen Ilya since September 25, when he was spotted in Connecticut. But Thursday, Underwood says, the wildlife service got a call saying, “We’ve got your manatee.” A picture quickly confirmed it was Ilya, who can be identified from his head scar and jagged tail — the product of collisions with boats. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service law-enforcement agents watched over him Friday, but ruled out a rescue right away because of the weather. They offered Ilya the manatee treats of vegetables and freshwater to keep him in place.
Now, if the Marine Mammal Stranding Center can find him, they’ll put him in a heated saltwater tank where he can recover for a few days while the agency arranges his transport down to Florida, either by truck or Coast Guard plane. But if they don’t, he faces a journey home of several hundred miles to warmer waters. Even if he goes sixteen to eighteen miles a day, that’s a long trip, especially as he’ll be traveling from inlet to inlet in need of freshwater to drink. Currently, the ocean temperatures north of South Carolina are in the low sixties and high fifties, inhospitable to the manatee’s health.