by Leslee Stewart
So far our Florida winter has been pretty un-wintery this year. With near 80 degree days and cool nights, I completely get why birds and “snow birds” migrate here when the temps get too cold up north. Another unique animal to migrate here each year is the manatee.
Every winter, manatees make their way to the warmer waters of Tampa Bay. And one of the best places to view them is at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach.
Recently when the kids had a day off from school, my friend Amy and I loaded up our little ones and headed to the center. From north Tampa, the drive is approximately 45 minutes south on I-75.
The center is adjacent to the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach. Many years ago, workers at the station noticed manatees in large numbers in the power station’s discharge canal. The station uses saltwater taken from Tampa Bay to cool one of its units. The warmed, cleaned salt water is then discharged back into the bay, thus making the water near the station around 78 degrees, almost 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the bay. Manatees, who are warm blooded, flock to the warmer waters next to the station from November to April.
My family has been to the center a few times. We like taking friends and family who are visiting from out of town. With each visit, we always see at least 50 to 100 manatees in the water. These gentle giants are fun to watch as they slowly come up for air and flip their giant, spatula-like tail on the water’s surface.
Another great feature of the center is the 900-foot tidal walk. Stretching out into the bay, this walk passes through a mangrove forest where you often see small crabs, fish and birds amongst the trees. At the end of the walk, it opens back up into Tampa Bay providing more views of the manatees. There’s also an education building, butterfly garden, gift shop and small cafe. We packed a lunch and enjoyed the great weather on one of the many picnic tables at the center.
But perhaps the best feature is the fact that there is no charge to visit the Manatee Viewing Center, making it a perfect and free way to spend a day around Tampa Bay.
For directions, hours and more information, check out the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center website.