It took some sweet talk, affectionate chin scratching and a net Thursday to draw Lil Joe, the wayfaring, celebrity manatee, out of the river where he had been trapped for weeks and into the care of rescuers, with whom he has spent most of his life.
The 23-year-old Florida native, first taken in as a newborn orphan and raised in zoos and aquariums for more than two decades, has now been rescued twice since experts decided he knew enough to survive in the wild and set him free early last year along the St. Johns River in Volusia County.
Thursday's recapture was triggered by Lil Joe's reappearance last month in the Little Econlockhatchee River in east Orange County, far off the beaten path for manatees. His identity was a mystery for weeks, until a wildlife volunteer spotted a manmade brand - R5 - on his back.
Biologists think Lil Joe was able to swim that far up the normally shallow river back in June, when it was swollen with tropical rain. Then the Little Econ got little again.
Unlike a previous attempt to capture him, when R5 stayed hidden, he seemed happy to have company Thursday when state biologist Ann Spellman found him at daybreak, downstream in Seminole County, where the Iron Bridge Water Reclamation Facility discharges effluent.
During his years in captivity, Lil Joe had grown large, weighing as much as 1,950 pounds. But in the river Thursday, at 10 1/2 feet long, he looked underweight at 1,100 or 1,200 pounds.
At about 8 a.m. EDT, Monica Ross, a Sea to Shore Alliance behavioral ecologist, buckled a radio-tracking belt around Lil Joe. At 11:30, SeaWorld rescue specialists assembled. "He's very approachable," Spellman told them. "It's almost like he wanted to come back into captivity." At first, only a few rescuers got into the water, hoping to ease a stretcher beneath Lil Joe and then, with help, lift him from the river. But Lil Joe seemed to have a change in heart; he drifted to within arm's reach of Ross before slipping away.
At 11:45, more rescuers got into the river, bringing a curtain-like net. They strung it out in a half-circle.
Lil Joe held back, his nostrils flaring widely just above the water's surface, then eased toward Ross again. Nearly 30 people watched in silence.
The rescuers pulled the net into three-quarters of a circle. When the manatee hesitated, Zak Johnson, a Sea to Shore research assistant, was able to get close enough to scratch Lil Joe's chin and sweet talk him into coming closer.
One of the rescuers then called "all hands on deck," and within minutes Lil Joe was wrapped in netting and cradled in the stretcher.
Iron Bridge worker Steve Reynolds brought in a backhoe, using the power shovel as a crane to help load the stretcher-riding Lil Joe into a SeaWorld rescue truck. Soon, R5 was on his way to a meal and veterinarian's checkup.
"They are going to X-ray him and do blood work and see if he swallowed anything or if he lost weight because he didn't know how to forage," Spellman said.
"Hopefully, in a few months, he'll be back to normal weight and possibly be released back into the wild again."