By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla., Sept 21 (Reuters) - Florida wildlife experts are preparing to dodge alligators and large hairy spiders to rescue for the third time a popular 1,500-pound (680-kg) manatee who managed to strand himself in a shallow waterway near downtown Orlando.
Lil Joe, a 23-year-old male about 10 feet (3 meters) long, is stuck in the Little Econlockhatchee River, a branch of a tributary o f the St. Johns River, which is a major thoroughfare for Florida's east coast manatees.
"I've been with the agency for 20 years, and we've never had a manatee up there," Ann Spellman, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said on Friday.
Spellman estimated Lil Joe traveled more than 25 miles (40 km) from the St. Johns through normally impassable tributaries swollen in June by Tropical Storm Debbie's deluge.
"Manatees are very curious animals. They'll go anywhere they can get themselves into," Spellman said.
Lil Joe has been in the public eye for most of his life, since he was first rescued in 1989 near Daytona Beach. At the time, he was an orphaned calf, 41 inches long and weighing 42 pounds (104 cm long and weighing 19 kg), Spellman said.
For the next two decades, Lil Joe remained in captivity, growing up at SeaWorld in Orlando and San Diego, the Cincinnati Zoo and the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Among his visitors was then-President George H.W. Bush in 1990, according to SeaWorld.
In accordance with a state mandate to release rehabilitated animals when possible, Lil Joe was returned to the wild in February 2011 at Silver Glen Springs, a thermal spring frequented by manatees looking to escape the cold water of the St. Johns River during the winter.
View footage of his release (STORY CONTINUES BELOW):
Within weeks, Lil Joe was recaptured after a telemetry device attached to him indicated he was suffering from the cold and not eating. Following a period of recuperation, Lil Joe was released into another St. Johns lake in May 2011.
He lost his telemetry equipment later that year and his trackers knew nothing of his whereabouts until he was spotted in August near a dam in the Little Econ. A volunteer snapped a picture that showed the branding mark "R5" on his skin, identifying him as Lil Joe.
Trying to determine whether Lil Joe could swim on his own back down the Little Econ, which was receding back to normal levels, Spellman and a team tried to navigate the waterway in a kayak. But in the first couple of miles, Spellman said, the team had to carry the kayak around three separate sandbars, proving Lil Joe was trapped.
The trip also previewed the wildlife hazards rescuers will have to deal with.
"If you've ever seen Harry Potter, the 'Chamber of Secrets,' that's what it feels like with wolf spiders all over the place," Spellman said.
Rescue planning is still under way, but Spellman said she hopes to get Lil Joe back to the St. Johns before the weather and the water turn cold. (Editing by Jane Sutton and Claudia Parsons)
View more manatees: images and captions courtesy of International League of Conservation Photographers.
Adult Florida manatee surfacing for breath. Trichechus manatus latirostris. Florida, USA.
Female Florida manatee with calf in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Trichechus manatus latirostris. Florida, USA.
Florida manatee with injuries in Three Sisters Spring. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA.
Tourists observe a Florida manatee near Three Sisters Spring. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA.
Tourists observe Florida manatees outside Three Sisters Spring. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA.
Florida manatees in Three Sisters Spring. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA.
The identity of endangered Florida manatees can be determined by researchers who know the patterns of the permanent scars. Some of the animals exhibit propeller slashes from more than 40 strikes. While many manatees live on after these encounters, more than half of manatee deaths in Florida are caused by boats. Trichechus manatus latirostris. Florida, USA.
Research biologist Robert Bonde from the U.S. Geological Survey and a team of colleagues from conservation partners capture a Florida manatee using a net. Their research is evaluating the health of the manatees in King's Bay. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA.
At Blue Springs State Park, endangered Florida manatees gather in droves to keep warm in the tepid waters of the natural spring during the cold months of the year. Researchers are learning about individual animals who frequent the same site year after year to survive the winter. Trichechus manatus latirostris. Florida, USA.
Florida manatee entering Three Sisters Spring through pillars that prevent boaters from entering the sanctuary. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Crystal River, Florida, USA.
Snorkelers observe Florida manatees congregating in Three Sisters Spring. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Florida, USA. Aerial photography was made possible by LightHawk.
Florida manatees congregating in a residential area of Magnolia Springs. Trichechus manatus latirostris. King's Bay, Florida, USA. Aerial photography was made possible by LightHawk.
A Florida manatee head rests on a table in Dr. Larry Witmer's lab at Ohio University. Dr. Witmer studies functional morphology of vertebrate heads. This manatee was killed by a boat strike. Trichechus manatus latirostris. Athens, Ohio, USA.
Florida manatees congregating near Big Bend Power Station. Situated on Tampa Bay, Big Bend Power Station is located on Big Bend Road on nearly 1,500 acres in southeastern Hillsborough County, close to Apollo Beach. Big Bend Power Station has four coal-fired units with a combined output of more than 1,700 megawatts. Big Bend Power Station meets strict environmental regulations through the use of flue gas desulfurization systems or "scrubbers," which remove sulfur dioxide produced when coal is burned. Florida manatees congregate near these power stations where water temperatures are warmer. Trichechus manatus latirostrus. Florida, USA. Aerial photography was made possible by LightHawk.