If you somehow knew that I moved to Florida a few years ago to complete my marine biology degree then you would understand that I am wholeheartedly obsessed with wildlife and have been ever since I was little and would bring grasshoppers and seahorses home to keep as pets (let me tell you how well that worked out). So, now you know. And there is no better place to live in the United States for exposure to wildlife than south Florida. I had an apartment on Tampa Bay – well, not on but like, right up against – with a sun-soaked balcony on the top floor. I can’t even tell you what percentage of my time was spent on that balcony but it was a big one, a little more than watching lizards mate on the deck by the pool but a little less than serving Coronas to rude Spring-breakers.
I saw everything during my time out there. Hundreds of fish jumping out of the water like tadpoles on a hot plate, day in and day out. I watched a bald eagle consume an entire rabbit the size of a small dog. Giant pink birds and some weird ass storks. Enormous snakes, dolphins, and black widow spiders everywhere – it’s amazing I’m still alive to bore you with this. I spoke daily to the resident alligator that lived in the bay next to my pool*. Living in Florida spurred my mild obsession with birds that endures to this day.
*I know, I know… alligators live in freshwater environments. So what was it doing living in the bay? Your guess is as good as mine.
So when I discovered an assumably magical place outside Tampa where hundreds upon hundreds of manatees flocked in the winter I was sold! OK, actually, what sold me was that I found it listed on a site about “Free Things to do in Tampa”. You know how it goes… #college #waitress
WHAT ON EARTH IS SHE RAMBLIN’ ABOUT NOW?
I’m talking about the Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center and I know what you’re thinking: “Why does she hang out at power plants so much?” And to that I will say, because where there is blazing hot water there is an incredible exuberance for life and also sometimes beer. And because who wouldn’t rather be here than at work where the neighborhood drifter goes to drink all of the mouthwash offered in the restroom. The same beachside restroom where someone once put a lobster in the sink and left the (ice-cold tap) water running on it. Umm THE OCEAN IS RIGHT THERE! Power plants are looking better already, huh?
The TECO Manatee Viewing Center is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else and I’ve seen a lot of weird shit. A well-managed mutually beneficial confluence of nature and industrialization, a happy accident. Basically, saltwater from Tampa Bay is pulled into the power plant to cool its energy producing units. This water is then discharged, clean and warm, back out into the bay which can, for some unknown reason, sustain even freshwater alligators. When winter hits southern Florida (maximum eye rolling commencing) manatees begin aggregating** to the waters around the plant to stay warm. According to the TECO website, “Today, [the] discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary that provides critical protection from the cold for these unique, gentle animals.”
**That’s right ladies and gents, a group of manatees is called an “aggregation”.
The manatee is Florida’s official state marine mammal and has the elephant as its closest living relative. These herbivores are gentle and very slow, making their shallow water habitat especially dangerous due to collisions with boat motors or getting trapped in fishing nets.
I was pretty amazed the first time I visited at just how many manatees were there hanging out, raising their babies, and playfully smacking their giant tails against the water’s surface. When I moved to Florida I wanted to see three things: an alligator, a manatee, and a panther. I consider my wishes fulfilled as I’m pretty sure I saw a panther once. It was about 4:00 AM after a closing shift at the bar when outside my apartment building something enormous and four-legged ran in front of my car. I tried desperately to catch it in my headlights but that sucker disappeared behind some palm trees and I was just too tired to chase it this time. Besides, it actually might’ve been a chupacabra and we all know those things don’t mess around. Regardless, if you have a wildlife bucket list similar to mine, you should definitely make a stop here.
They have viewing platforms for an elevated look above the water and on a clear day you can see everything happening beneath the surface. The site also has an environmental education center, butterfly gardens, mangrove trails, and a tidal walk. They have educated volunteers in the buildings and on the viewing platforms to answer any manatee related questions you might have. I had a lot as you can imagine.
Another fun offering of the Manatee Viewing Center is on the website itself. They offer two live webcams so you can view the manatees from your cold-as-shit office in Massachusetts. Like, right now. Do it. Do it. Or in my case, so you can wave to your mom in her office in Tennessee and brag about the sunshine and the 80°F November afternoon. You can also control these cameras directly from your computer. I mean it, you really can.
WHO IS THIS FOR?
Let me shoot some bullet (points) your way…
- College students with most likely no budget for entertainment like at all
- Animal lovers with weird bucket lists such as myself
- Power plant lovers – we are out there!
- Families – I would imagine? Kids like this stuff, right? I mean, there’s a hurricane simulator in the education center and they can get a plastic manatee made from a machine right before their very eyes (I got one).
- Someone who just lost their paycheck betting the whole thing on black
- Someone who just got fired for shattering the entire glass door of their restaurant in a paycheck-related fit of rage (just kidding they didn’t fire me, ha!)
- Basically anyone who likes free shit
WHERE IS THIS AND HOW DO I GET THERE?
6990 Dickman Rd
Apollo Beach, FL 33572
From Clearwater, cross the Courtney Campbell and continue on into Tampa, passing the airport on your left. Stay on one of those highways (whichever one passes under the sign for Ashley Drive – holla!) until you pass IKEA. I said pass IKEA, can you not read? I did not say get lost in IKEA, eat Swedish meatballs and leave three hours later with a new full-length mirror, the world’s greatest napkin holder, and no recollection of where you were headed in the first place. If you have reached this point, DO NOT TURN BACK. Keep going, you can do this. Drive for about another 30 minutes through an area where you are sure you are not supposed to be. Pass the should-be-out-of-commission BBQ joints and the run-down auto mechanics showcasing their supply of crappy old tires. Take a right somewhere… just wherever you see the white smoke coming out of the tall smokestacks. Go a little further along a metal fence until you dead-end into a parking lot made out of sea shells and there will probably be a sign. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s a sign. With manatees on it.
Just enter the above address into your GPS; I know you’ve got one. Unless you are a drifter…
WHEN SHOULD YOU GO?
The Manatee Viewing Center is only open from November 1st until April 15th. This is what those lucky sons-of-bitches in Florida refer to as “winter” and when the water around south Florida hits 68°F. This is the temperature at which manatees begin to seek warmer waters, and what Ashley will not let her house dip below EVER. After April the oceans heat back up and the manatees leave the power plant. But more specifically, the Manatee Viewing Center is open from 10 AM to 5 PM daily (exceptions being Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, and Easter).
Other ideal times to go:
- Days when you aren’t working AND not drinking at the beach
- When you need time off from serving hot wings at a bar on the beach to drunk people that say things like, “You are such a beautiful and exotic-looking Indian girl.” when in reality you couldn’t be less from India
- When your friends and/or family visit you from places with actual winters
- After lunch at IKEA, seriously the Tuesday special is delicious and it’s only $2.99
- Basically any day in Florida ever because the sun shines relentlessly
WHY SHOULD I VISIT THIS PLACE?
- You heard me say “Free!” like twelve times, right?
- Because it’s weird and you can’t see this anywhere else. I find it so sickeningly sweet to see animals and humans getting along so well. These manatees could have been run off long ago but instead were allowed to take up residence with neither causing any harm to the other. Manatees have it so hard in Florida at the hands of humans (you’ll see their boat scars when you get there) so it’s nice to see a place where they are taken care of and respected.
- Because hanging out at power plants is like, so awesome
- Because those fat little buggers are so totally cutie patootie you could just squeeze ’em! But don’t.
- Because you really want to get in the hurricane simulator and throw some dollars around to see if you can catch them
- Oh, that’s right you don’t have any. #IKEA #yougavemeabibleasatip
WHAT’S ON YOUR WILDLIFE BUCKET LIST?
LET ME KNOW BELOW!
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