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So many manatees. Viewing Center deck extends over the always-warm power station canal.
So many manatees. Viewing Center deck extends over the always-warm power station canal.

Power Station Manatees

Field review by the editors.

Apollo Beach, Florida

Late in 1985, soon after the Tampa Electric Company's (TECO) new plant began pumping recycled, heated water into its Apollo Beach canal, word went around the power station: "Hey, where did all these manatees come from?"

Entry arch makes it clear what visitors expect to see.
Entry arch makes it clear what visitors expect to see.

Manatees, once mistaken for mermaids by sailors and pirates, are large marine mammals that swim in Florida waters. Although they look well-insulated and blubbery, they need external warmth to survive. Heated power plant water is like catnip for chilly manatees, and they swim to the Apollo Beach discharge canal whenever it gets cold.

In other words, the best chance to see a lot of manatees at Apollo Beach is in winter, November to April, the peak Florida travel season.

Power plant is an unexpected neighbor for a nature attraction - but it's the reason why the manatees are here.
Power plant is an unexpected neighbor for a nature attraction - but it's the reason why the manatees are here.

When the manatees arrived at the power station canal, the public quickly followed. "Manatees are one of those species that people just love," said Stanley Kroh, senior manager of TECO's land and stewardship programs. The company, he said, was shocked at how many people wanted to see them. "We were getting crowds stopping at the roadside, looking through the fence, trying to get a view."

Visitors can drop cash donations in this mailbox.
Visitors can drop cash donations in this mailbox.

TECO opened the fence, let in the manatee-mad public, and transformed the simple gazing spot into the Manatee Viewing Center, a showplace of manatee tourism.

The attraction is free, and features diversions suited to the modern-day manatee fan: pose-with-a-manatee statues; head-in-the-hole photo-ops; an education center with exhibits about manatee anatomy, migration patterns, and the local ecosystem; and a gift shop stocked with a species-romanticizing range of plush, cuddly manatee toys. Platforms at both ends of the canal allow visitors to watch the animals as they drift around and poke their heads above water (Tip: polarized sunglasses help to see marine animals beneath the surface).

Indoor education center has exhibits on manatee anatomy - and you can smell a manatee's breath.
Indoor education center has exhibits on manatee anatomy - and you can smell a manatee's breath.

Over the years the canal has become a regular hangout for manatees; certain individuals have been seen dozens of times. Manatees injured by boat propellers and fishing lines out in the Bay (both are outlawed in the canal) are rehabilitated and sometimes released next to the viewing platforms, offering an extra thrill for onlookers.

50-foot-high viewing tower lets you see even more manatees.
50-foot-high viewing tower lets you see even more manatees.

Stanley said that a tourist favorite inside the education building is the Manatee Breath exhibit. A fake manatee head sticks out of one wall, with the instruction, "Push the button on manatee's nose to smell its breath." The odor, Stanley said, is, "not necessarily pleasant but not gross or disgusting." He described it as "kind of grassy" and "very similar to a cow's breath." After your visit you may want to find the nearest cow and compare for yourself.

There's no comparing, however, the Viewing Center to old-style Florida attractions with performing porpoises and seals. No manatees jump through hoops of fire or balance balls on their noses at the Viewing Center. In fact, they don't do much at all. Manatees move very slowly -- so slowly that barnacles grow on their backs. During cold snaps they resemble plump sausages floating in a pool of steamy water.

The average manatee eats a hundred pounds of vegetation every day (hence the grassy breath), and they've been known to climb onto waterfront properties and chew up the lawns. Tossing food to the manatees from the viewing platforms is forbidden because, let's be honest, the kind of food that tourists eat wouldn't be good for manatees. Also, marine scientists don't want manatees getting too friendly with people and too dependent on power stations. This raises the question: in the future, when all of Florida's electricity comes from the wind and the sun and there are no more power plants with warm water canals, where will the manatees go? "It's something that we're working on," said Stanley, speculating that some of that clean energy could be diverted just to heat the water.

Plump manatees bask in the power station's heated water.
Plump manatees bask in the power station's heated water.

New additions have been gradually added to the Manatee Viewing Center property: visitors can now climb a 50-foot-high wooden observation tower, walk nature trails, visit a turtle rehabilitation center and fish hatchery, or get their hands wet in a ray-petting tank. But the main attraction will always be the manatees. Stanley told us that on cold days over a thousand of them can crowd into the canal. It's a spectacle, however, dependent on temperature; once it gets above 68 degrees, the manatees vanish into Tampa Bay.

On those days, Stanley said, the common question from visitors is, "Why can't you bring the manatees back into the canal?" The only way to do that, he said, would be to somehow lower the temperature of the entire Bay, and as much as the Viewing Center loves manatees, it can't.

Power Station Manatees

Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center

Address:
6990 Dickman Rd, Apollo Beach, FL
Directions:
Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center. I-75 Exit 246, west on Big Bend Road/CR 672, go 2.5 miles west to curve intersection of Big Band and Dickman Rd.
Hours:
Open daily 10-5 Nov 1 - Apr 15. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
813-228-4289
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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