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Crystal River manatee rescue underway

Seven manatees are safe, healthy and back in the Crystal River following a massive rescue effort Thursday to remove them from a Citrus County golf course pond.

The manatees had been stranded in a pond at The Plantation on Crystal since Hurricane Hermine; a storm surge washed the manatees over a bridge that separates a canal off Kings Bay to a pond on the golf course.

"They've had a veritable buffet of vegetative life. They're probably going to be really bummed that they're

being taken out, to be honest with you." said Terry Natwick, a spokesperson for the Plantation on Crystal River.

Dozens of volunteers gathered Thursday morning to move the manatees back to their home in the river. Some volunteers waded chest-deep in murky water, others sat in kayaks as they worked together to corral the manatees into a narrow corner of the pond.

The team of experts used massive nets to catch the manatees and haul them onto shore.

"They put the nets in strategic positions that, if they go over that, they can trap them that way," said Mike Walsh, a veterinarian with the University of Florida's Aquatic Health program.

"It's really a precise situation. You got to be really careful," added Natwick. "The first net they dropped, they got a mom and a calf. So within ten minutes they had them up on land."

Once the manatees were out of the water, they were placed on a stretcher and carried to a cart that whisked them away to a medical station where Walsh and other experts checked them out.

The animals were all in good health, Walsh said, but two of the animals were harder to find.

"[Manatees] go for the deepest area within that system, which is also covered with a lot of the vegetation," he said. "They'll just stealthily come up and they'll just break the surface and then go back down and they can stay down for 20-plus minutes."

The biggest issue is the weight of the animals; one of the manatees weighed close to 2,000 lbs. Another weighed about 1,500 lbs. The mother-calf combinations also had to be kept together so the babies wouldn't be abandoned.

"If they mom and the calf get separated for too long, the mom can reject the calf," said Natwick.

After several hours, all seven manatees had been released back into the Crystal River. Within minutes of the release of the first two, the mother and calf had already made their way back to the bridge they'd washed over during Hermine.

This time, however, there was no storm surge to help them get back into the pond for another feast.