The Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach is a free way to entertain the kids on a drive along Florida’s West Coast. Stop at the federally designated manatee sanctuary to see dozens of manatees gather to bask in the warm water. There’s also a tidal walk, viewing platforms, boardwalk to an observation tower, a butterfly garden, stingray touch tank and an environmental education center. Note: The Manatee Viewing Center is temporarily closed due to COVID-19.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d see the smoke stacks in the distance and drive right by. Nothing to see here!
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Driving down Florida’s West Coast, midway between Tampa and Sarasota, is the Tampa Electric Company’s (Teco) Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. This federally designated manatee sanctuary draws dozens of manatees to the warm, clean waters of the Big Bend Power Station discharge canal.
The Manatee Viewing Center opened in 1986. Tampa Electric built the observation platform overseeing the warm water discharge canal at Big Bend Station after it became evident that manatees were seeking refuge here when the open waters got too cold. Over the years, more than one million people have visited the viewing area to see and learn about these endangered marine mammals.
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What Will You See at the Manatee Viewing Center?
We visited on a weekday while making the drive from Tampa to Sanibel Island. The Viewing Center proved an excellent diversion from the long car ride, and we ended up spending a solid hour watching the manatees, checking out the educational displays, and walking the half mile tidal walkway.
Along the tidal walk – which is accessible to people with mobility challenges – we saw Florida fish, cranes, pelicans, coastal plants, mangroves and more manatees.
Adjacent to the walkway and across the canal is an unobstructed view of the power station and its four smoke stacks, an interesting site in itself, especially if you have boys! The massive industrial site is a strange but captivating backdrop to the sight of the serene manatees relishing the warm water.
What Will You Learn at the Manatee Viewing Center?
Inside the Manatee Viewing Center’s Environmental Education Building, colorful displays draw you into the world of the manatee and their habitat. Kids can inspect manatee bones, piece together puzzles and feel the blast of a hurricane in the center’s simulator. Other displays illustrate how Big Bend Power Station generates electricity and prepares for storms and emergencies. There is also a nice gift shop.
The stingrays touch tank, a partnership with the Florida Aquarium, displays cownose rays, southern Atlantic stingrays and horseshoe crabs. If you stick your hand under the water and hold still, these amazing creatures are likely to graze your hand as they swim past.
More about Manatees
The Florida manatee is a large, gentle, plant-eating, warm-blooded marine animal found in Florida’s shallow coastal waters, rivers and springs. The Manatee Viewing Center is a look-don’t-touch facility.
According to the Manatee Viewing Center website, the average adult manatee, or “sea cow,” is about 10 feet long and weighs approximately 1,200 pounds. It has a large, seal-like body that tapers to a large, fan-shaped flat tail. The skin of the adult manatee is normally gray. Stiff, brush-like facial whiskers help the manatees forage for food.
Manatees move freely within salt and fresh water habitats, often in water less than six-feet deep, where underwater vegetation is most abundant. Manatees are a migratory species and Tampa Bay is home to more than 600 manatees, and scientists estimate there are 5,000 in Florida’s waters.
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Tips for Your Visit
The Center makes the following recommendations:
- Plan for exercise. The walk is about a mile and the climb to the top of the observation tower is several flights of stairs. Wear comfortable walking shoes.
- Go before you go. There are no restrooms at the tower site, habitat trail or boardwalk.
- Apply bug spray and dress appropriately. It’s Florida. Don’t be surprised by an afternoon rain shower.
- Check the forecast. The tower closes if severe weather is expected.
- Bring water and food. None is available at the tower, but there is a nice spot for a picnic at the base of the tower.
- Don’t feed the wildlife. Enough said.
Visiting the Manatee Viewing Center
The TECO Manatee Viewing Center is open 10am-5pm daily from November 1 through April 15, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Easter, although the wildlife observation tower and habitat trails close at 4 p.m. daily.
Admission is completely free! The facility offers free parking and free admission. Donations are welcome, and go directly toward the purchase and maintenance of educational exhibits and publications.
The Manatee Viewing Center is located at 6990 Dickman Rd, in Apollo Beach, Florida. It’s just 2.5 miles west of Interstate 75.
Plan to visit early in the morning or on colder days for your best shot at seeing the most manatees!
Healthy Tip for This Destination
Walk to the end of the tidal walkway and back – twice. It is scenic and refreshing. Before you know it you’ll have put in a mile without even breaking a sweat!