Vacationers from Middleburg and Jacksonville pitched in to help save a manatee in distress in Venice on Sunday, and now have a story they’ll never forget.

Master Venice Police Officer Paul Joyce, with the Marine Unit, responded Sunday afternoon to the Intracoastal Waterway just south of the Venice Marine Park boat ramp.

“This was a very taxing weekend with several manatee recoveries,” Joyce said. “Just this weekend alone for the Venice/Nokomis area, there were five manatee deaths.”

Florida Wildlife Commission officers arrived, too.

Officer Joyce recruited the vacationers — who had returned to the boat ramp to trailer their boat away after having mechanical problems the day prior.

Aaron Spencer said he and his buddies, Robert Bullington, Stephen Lundy and Chris McGrath, were happy to help rescue the 800-to 1,000-pound manatee.

“We thought the manatee was playing,” Spencer said. “An FWC officer said, ‘He’ not jumping and playing. He’s struggling for air.’ We jumped in the water and put life jackets under its head and pulled it to shallow water.”

Boat captain Keith Meyer helped steer the manatee toward the water’s edge, Spencer said.

For the next hour, the Good Shepherds held onto the gentle giant.

“When he decided he wanted to flail, it was a challenge for sure,” Spencer said. “It was a very humbling experience. Being fishermen, we’re in the water a lot, and around manatees. But that was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. We actually need to learn more about them.”

With the help of FWC and Mote Marine staff, the group was able to safely bring the manatee to the boat ramp for transport onto the FWC Manatee Rescue truck, which took it to Sea World for rehabilitation.

It took more than a half-dozen people to carefully pick up the manatee and place it into the truck, Joyce said.

Sea World reported on Tuesday the manatee was fully awake and eating well — no longer showing signs of red tide exposure or lethargy.

Spencer said he was relieved.

“It’s good to know it’s doing fine. It was an amazing experience to be part of. I’m very proud it didn’t pass. It’s a very gorgeous creature. Water puppies is what they look like to me.”

On Sunday, the vacationers went to a restaurant to celebrate. After telling their story, people started calling them the “#redneck manateerescuecrew.”

“It was a fun afternoon,” Spencer said. “We sat there in awe of what just happened. A celebration was in need.”

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