By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (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 long, is stuck in the Little Econlockhatchee River, a branch of a tributary of 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 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.
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)