Meet a Manatee: Ilya

A male manatee known for being safely rescued from cold waters in New Jersey.

Ilya the manatee
Ilya the manatee.

A sirenian story had a happy ending in the fall of 2009, when a manatee was rescued in late October from cold waters near New Jersey and brought safely back to Florida. The manatee was identified by researchers as a male manatee named “Ilya.” Although Ilya had been known to biologists for about 15 years, he had not previously been documented outside of Florida.

Manatee researchers were able to recognize Ilya because of a scar on his head and his mutilated tail. Ilya was first sighted when he was a calf after he had received a boat strike that removed the bottom of his tail. Within another year, he had sustained a second boat strike that left him with a white scar on the middle of his head. When Ilya was young, he befriended another manatee named Napoleon, and he was named by a biologist who was a fan of the 1960s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The show featured two characters: American Napoleon Solo and Russian Illya Kuryakin.

Although a few manatees have been known to range as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts, these sightings are generally rare. But in the summer of 2009, Ilya left his south Florida home and traveled north. He was documented in the Chesapeake Bay, New Jersey, and Connecticut before being seen in Cape Cod in mid-September and Connecticut in late September.

In early October 2009, there were no northerly sightings of Ilya, and everyone hoped that he had finally decided to head south for the winter. But on Thursday, October 15th, Ilya startled a refinery worker by appearing at a warm water outflow at the ConocoPhillips Bayway Refinery near Linden, New Jersey. At that time of the year, water temperatures in the Arthur Kill tidal strait, where Ilya was located, were estimated to be between 60 and 64 degrees. Typically, manatees cannot tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees for long periods of time. The warm water discharge from the oil refinery heated the surrounding waters to 75 degrees, which is what likely attracted Ilya.

Ilya the manatee in 2013.
One of the photos taken of Ilya in the Florida Keys in September 2013. If you look closely, you’ll see the white scar on his head that helps researchers to identify him.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned a rescue for that weekend but were thwarted by a nor’easter, which brought heavy wind and rains and made conditions too dangerous. Volunteers from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a rescue group in nearby Brigantine, tried to keep Ilya near the outflow by feeding him, but he disappeared for about a week before he was sighted again by refinery workers on October 26th.

The rescue team quickly reassembled and was finally able to capture Ilya on October 27th after four attempts over seven long hours. Ilya was transported to an indoor heated pool at the stranding center and given care by veterinarians. Surprisingly, he was in pretty good health, suffering only a mild case of cold stress syndrome. After being cleared for travel, Ilya flew back to Florida on a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 cargo aircraft. He was then transported to the Miami Seaquarium where he underwent a short rehabilitation and was released near Miami on December 15, 2009.

A group of more than 40 people made Ilya’s 2009 rescue a success, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership, who coordinated the rescue, as well as staff and volunteers from the New Jersey Marine Mammal Stranding Center, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Miami Seaquarium, and Point Pleasant Dive and Rescue Team, as well as government officials, refinery workers, and veterinarians. ConocoPhillips employees operated boats and a crane for the rescue effort, and the refinery provided a heated tent with food and hot coffee for the rescue workers.

Since his release, Ilya has been sighted in Florida’s Biscayne Bay following the very cold winter of 2010, and he has remained in the south Florida region. In February 2013, he made another appearance at Port Everglades in Broward County, where he was captured and tagged as part of a Sea to Shore Alliance research study. He subsequently lost his tag, but he was successfully retagged in November 2013 after he was spotted in the Florida Keys. In January 2014, Ilya was sighted in the Florida Keys again, but he had lost his tracking gear and wasn’t re-tagged.

Each person who adopts Ilya will receive a full-color photo, biography, and adoption certificate, as well as a membership handbook and subscription to The Manatee Zone, a newsletter featuring updates on the adopted manatees when they are sighted, and Paddle Tales, Save the Manatee Club’s bi-monthly eNewsletter. For more information about adopting Ilya, go to Save the Manatee Club’s Adopt-A-Manatee page, or call 1-800-432-JOIN (5646).

See the video of Ilya’s dramatic 2009 rescue. (Filmed and edited by Bryan Kaus, ConocoPhillips, Bayway Refinery.)