Ilya, the manatee who swam to Cape Cod this summer, then prompted an October 27 rescue when he stalled in New York Harbor, is recovering nicely in the Miami Seaquarium and should be able to get back to the wild in three or four weeks, says his vet, Dr. Maya Rodriguez. “He probably lost 100 pounds, which in the manatee world is not too much,” Rodriguez says. He’s a big guy — 1,100 pounds and 293 centimeters (9.5 feet) — but exceptionally gentle, even among a species known for its docility. That’s why Dr. Rodriguez can let him stay in a tank with an adolescent orphan female manatee named Glade. Other big male manatees would play too rough, she says, but Ilya just touches noses with Glade.
Dr. Rodriguez will wait until a cold spell to release him so that he won’t be tempted to head north right away. Manatees have been wandering increasingly farther away from Florida in recent years, but they migrate back in winter because they need water above 68 degrees to avoid cold stress. Even in Florida, they huddle for warmth around hot springs and power-plant outflows (which makes them a lot easier to see in winter, with designated viewing areas and tours around the state).
Just a couple of weeks ago, things were looking bleak for Ilya — who is sixteen years old and is identified by his boat-accident scars (a white circle on his head and a chunk missing from his tail). He had been in the Harbor for two weeks and the temperature was dipping into the 50s, meaning he might have had just days to live if he didn’t stay warm in the ConocoPhillips outflow, where water was 75 degrees. Workers at the plant told U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s manatee rescue program when he resurfaced, and they brought in a massive multi-agency rescue that included the Point Pleasant Dive and Rescue Team, who wrestled with the net underwater. He escaped three times and put up a struggle when he was finally caught. “He really bucked,” Dr. Rodriguez said. She gave him some sedatives, antibiotics, and nutrition right away. At first, Ilya wasn’t digesting properly and his blood sugar was low, Rodriguez says.
He recovered for a couple of days at Brigantine’s Marine Mammal Stranding Center, then flew to Miami aboard a Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane that was on a training mission anyway. He traveled with moist towels and heating pads. The Seaquarium will probably release Ilya in the Florida Keys, where he’s spent most of his life. No one is sure what gave him the idea to swim up north — or whether he’ll come visit again next year.
Here’s a video of the dramatic rescue: