If you didn’t know any better, you’d see the smoke stacks in the distance and drive right by. Nothing to see here!
Driving down Florida’s gulf coast, midway between Tampa and Sarasota, is the Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center is a federally designated manatee sanctuary where dozens of manatees gather to bask in the warm, clean discharge waters of the Big Bend Power Station. Viewing platforms, tidal walkways, a butterfly garden, and an environmental education center are here for visitors to enjoy.
The Manatee Viewing Center opened in 1986. Tampa Electric built the observation platform at Big Bend Station after it became evident that manatees were seeking refuge here when the open waters got too cold, and over the years more than one million visitors have come to see and learn about these endangered marine mammals.
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 walkway – which is ADA-compliant, by the way – we saw cranes, pelicans, coastal plants, mangroves, more manatees, and read some really interesting informational signs.
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 serene manatees relishing in the warm water.
Inside the Manatee Viewing Center’s Environmental Education Building, colorful displays draw you into the world of the manatee and their habitat. Other displays illustrate how Big Bend Power Station generates electricity and prepares for storms and emergencies. There is also a nice gift shop.
The Florida manatee is a large, plant-eating, warm-blooded marine animal found in Florida’s shallow coastal waters, rivers and springs. Although the Manatee Viewing Center is a look-don’t-touch facility, the manatee’s mild demeanor makes swimming with the manatees a popular activity in Florida.
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.
Visiting the Manatee Viewing Center
Visiting the Manatee Viewing Center 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 Road in Apollo Beach, Florida, just 2.5 miles west of Interstate 75. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, November through April.
Plan to visit early in the morning or on colder days for your best shot at seeing the most manatees!
For more information, visit http://www.tampaelectric.com/company/mvc/
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!