MIAMI — In a journey familiar to retirees but not sea mammals, Ilya the wayward manatee flew south for the winter Thursday after being rescued from a chilly New Jersey creek.
Now he's lounging in a balmy 81-degree pool with a view of the Miami skyline, all the lettuce he can eat, and even some female companionship.
Ilya was flown south aboard a Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane after being rescued Monday from a small waterway between northern New Jersey and Staten Island, N.Y.
He was huddling near an outfall pipe at a refinery to stay warm. The water temperature was 53 degrees – well below the 68 degrees manatees need to survive. Ilya has migrated in the summer as far north as Massachusetts in the last decade, but he dithered in New Jersey too long this year.
It took more than 30 rescuers and 7 1/2 hours to corral Ilya in a 300-foot fishing net, drag him onto a muddy creek bed and lift him by a crane onto a stretcher. Scientists took Ilya to Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, N.J., which cared for him until Thursday's flight.
"We're very relieved," said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the center. "We spent a lot of days worrying about him."
The 10-foot-long sea cow chowed down on crates of lettuce as he regained his strength, downing $300 worth of produce in two days.
"All this thing did was eat," Schoelkopf said. "But that's a good thing."
After the flight from Atlantic City and a ride in the back of a box truck down Interstate 95 in Florida, about two dozen Miami Seaquarium employees hoisted the 1,100-pound mammal out of the truck and onto some wet foam mattresses for a brief photo opportunity. Ilya blinked and snorted softly before volunteers picked up the edges of the wet wrapping that encased him and slipped the gentle giant into the tank.
"It looks like he does have a good chance, he doesn't have severe signs of cold stress," said Dr. Mara Rodriguez, a veterinarian who made the journey with Ilya.
Federal wildlife authorities kept the rescue a secret, fearing a crush of media and well-wishers could stress the animal. Ilya spent the two-hour plane ride covered in wet towels and resting on foam matting.
He will be under the care of veterinarians at the Miami Seaquarium, a marine life entertainment park and rehabilitation facility. It's located on an island east of downtown Miami and is surrounded by Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean – where Ilya may someday be able to swim again if he recovers.
From the looks of things Thursday, it appeared that Ilya was settling in nicely. His tank already had bouquets of lettuce floating around, and was sharing the water with a young female manatee who was orphaned in Florida this week.
Within a few minutes of floating at the bottom of the pool, Ilya surfaced – making the photographers happy – and then nuzzled the female with his whiskered snout and flicked his tail.
Ilya has been tracked by scientists since 1994 as he made his way up and down the East Coast and is identifiable by a distinctive scarring pattern on his tail. Normally content to frolic in Florida's warm waters, he created a commotion in northern climes this summer, surfacing in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland.
Scientists say it is unusual but not unheard of for manatees to venture this far north in search of food during the summer.