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The best place in Tampa Bay to see manatees is not some remote wilderness waterway. It is a power plant.
For 31 years, Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center at its Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach has attracted hundreds of manatees and thousands of spectators. Indeed, it averages close to 300,000 visitors a year. The reason the manatees show up is simple.
When the water temperature drops to 68 degrees, or below, the manatees seek warmer waters – in springs, rivers or, in this case, the outflow canal from the electric plant.
Jamie Woodlee, TECO Senior Environmental Technician, recently recounted the Viewing Center’s origins: The plant opened in 1970, but the manatees began appearing in an adjacent canal in 1986, when it began operating Big Bend Unit 4. Saltwater taken from the bay to cool the unit was discharged into the canal. The clean, warm water proved a magnet for manatees during cool spells. This created a dilemma for the utility.
The canal had also been a popular place for locals to launch boats and fish. Woodlee said when Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists saw manatees had started to congregate in the canal, they asked TECO to fence it off to protect the marine mammal, which is frequently slashed by boat propellers. TECO complied, but people still came to watch the manatees through the fence. Some companies might then have walled off the site altogether, not wishing to incur the headaches and liability of allowing access. But Woodlee said TECO officials wanted to “give back to the public.”
The company built boardwalks and opened the Viewing Center. Now citizens can safely watch the manatees daily from November 1 to April 15, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is free.
Through the years, TECO developed the Viewing Center into a more elaborate conservation facility that includes a Tidal Flat Walkway and a trail that leads to a 50-foot observation tower with a panoramic view of Tampa Bay. An environmental education building instructs on manatees and explains how the power plant generates energy. A popular gift shop helps fund the operational costs of the Center, which has hosted more than 5 million visitors.
The goal of all this, Woodlee said, is to “educate people about the environment and also show that industry can do the right thing, and work to protect nature.”
It is not surprising TECO has maintained a long partnership with The Florida Aquarium, one that is growing stronger strong as they join with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in developing the Center for Conservation on TECO acreage adjacent to the viewing center.
The Center for Conservation, now under various stages of development, will include ‘coral arks,’ or nurseries, where various species of coral and long-spine urchin will be grown and studied; a sea turtle recovery facility, where sea turtles that have been treated at the main Aquarium’s medical facility can fully recover before being released into the wild; and a shark and ray research station. The FWC already is teaching kids fishing and other outdoors skills in an education building on the property. Moreover, the Aquarium is bringing youths out for various educational programming on the site. More additions are planned, though funding will determine the pace of construction.
The Florida Aquarium also leads kayaking tours through surrounding mangroves.
Debbi Stone, the Aquarium’s vice president of education, said eventually the entire conservation complex will be open to the public. Even if people are not allowed in research stations, windows will let them observe the work inside.
The Aquarium also has become more involved with the Manatee Viewing Center.
This is the second year it has moved its cownose rays from the touch habitat at Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field to a 10,000-gallon touch habitat at the Viewing Center for November through mid-April.
The transit of more than 12 rays was performed cautiously in two trips, with the rays transported in in 600-gallon tanks with life support systems and accompanied by 12 Aquarium staffers and a veterinarian.
As a TECO release noted last year when the exhibit opened, the Aquarium provides “round-the-clock care for the animals, including a staff veterinarian and four biologists who observe the animals, feed them and provide proactive health monitoring. The rays eat squid, capelin and smelt, about 100 pounds of food a week for all the animals in the habitat.”
The wild manatees, in contrast, need no food. The herbivores make do on sea grasses and other aquatic vegetation. Woodlee said the temperature determines how many manatees can be seen at the Viewing Center. Once, 800 manatees were counted in the canal, which extends beyond far beyond the boardwalks.
FWC has documented that many of the animals return each year. The distant relative of the elephant can live up to 60 years, and when resting can remain under water up to 20 minutes, though it must surface more often when active.
It is difficult to believe the massive manatee (up to 10 feet long and 1,200 pounds) is thought to be the inspiration for the mermaid legend. But the appeal of the sad-eyed creatures is undeniable.
The Florida manatee’s recent population growth - from an estimated several hundred in the 1960s to more than 6,000 today – led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reclassify the manatee from “endangered” to “threatened.”
The move was controversial, but FWS maintains the change will not diminish manatee safeguards, which obviously are essential. Last year, 520 manatee deaths were documented, and collisions with boats accounted for more than 100 – the reason boaters should always heed manatee zone signs. Swimmers should never approach or accost a manatee, though, sadly, sometimes videos are posted of some knuckleheads grabbing or jumping on the gentle creatures.
The manatee is not the only fascinating wildlife to be seen at the Viewing Center. Stone points out spinner sharks, tarpon, rays and all kinds of other fish and birds are regularly spotted from the boardwalk. Woodlee said last year a goliath grouper frequented the canal.
TECO is, of course, first and foremost a power company. But it’s done a remarkable, and admirable, job with this environmental attraction. Stone said the Aquarium’s collaboration with the TECO Manatee Viewing Center is a natural: “TECO wants to ensure the visitors are engaged and educated about conservation, while having a good time, and that really aligns to what we do.”
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.