CRYSTAL RIVER — Imagine being locked in a buffet. Not the worst place to be stranded, at least for the first couple of days. But you start packing on pounds. After a while, forget the food. You have to get out of there — for your own good.
At least seven manatees made their way into a golf course lake here as a channel flowing into Kings Bay swelled over a path and joined the lake during Hurricane Hermine. When the water levels dropped, that same path cut the manatees off from the channel. But they were surrounded by hydrilla, an invasive plant the herbivores love to munch. Workers at the Plantation on Crystal River golf course noticed the manatees on Sept. 2, and since then volunteers have monitored the situation.
Thursday, for their own good, it was time to get them home.
"The female we caught this morning — the big, lactating female — she was 1,800 pounds," said Andy Garrett, manatee rescue coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Probably 400 pounds of eating and not exercising."
The wildlife commission led about 100 volunteers and workers with various groups, businesses and government agencies in an effort to net the stranded manatees. As of 4 p.m., the group had captured seven manatees: three juveniles and four adults. Kelly Richmond, spokeswoman for the wildlife commission, said it wasn't yet clear how many mother-calf pairs there were. She said golf course staffers would watch for any stragglers.
"If we missed one, we will be back to come get it," Richmond said.
She said that it wasn't clear to her how many of the manatees had microchip trackers, but that any manatee without a tracker would be outfitted with one. The manatees were also photographed before being returned to Kings Bay, a warm-water refuge for the endangered species.
Richmond said the wildlife commission's costs for the operation came from manatee license plate sales; she didn't have a total price tag Thursday.
To catch the manatees, volunteers waded into the lake with a net, watching for alligators and forming a wide loop to constrict the manatees' space until there was nowhere to go. They dragged them on land — gently — and either carried them or loaded them onto a trailer attached to an all-terrain vehicle to bring them to an assessment station. The volunteers easily netted the first two a little after 9 a.m.
Volunteers wrangled the third, a small calf, on the opposite side of the lake, near the path. They left it in the water and the volunteers fell silent, hoping it would vocalize with its mother to lure her over.
When that didn't work, they broke out a flotilla of yellow kayaks on the far side of the lake, slapping the water with paddles and driving any remaining manatees near the path, where they could be scooped up.
After the fourth was captured, Glenn Wilsey, 62, puttered his ATV over to a bunch of coolers and scarfed his ham and cheese sandwich before he was needed again. He used to wrestle alligators and loved that thrill. Manatees are his second-favorite animal.
"When you get next to a wild animal, it becomes spiritual," he said. "You feel it."
Beverly Carr, 63, who volunteers at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, started going on "manatee patrol" in January. She moved to Florida from New Jersey, so when she thought of large, wild animals, her first thought for most is that the beast is dangerous. But not manatees.
"They're so big and so gentle," she said. "I lived in New Jersey on the Atlantic Ocean, and you feared sharks and you feared big fish, jellyfish. Down here you've got these monstrous manatees and you don't fear them. They don't fear you. They're gentle."
Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.