If you somehow knew that I moved to Florida a few years ago to complete my marine biology degree then you’d understand 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 saw everything during my time out on my bayside balcony. 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 right in front of me. Giant pink birds that weren’t flamingos and some really weird 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 page about “Free Things to do in Tampa”. You know how it goes… #college #waitress
TAMPA’S MANATEE VIEWING CENTER
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’s also an incredible exuberance for life and also sometimes beer. The TECO Manatee Viewing Center is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else and I’ve seen a lot of interesting stuff. Tampa’s Manatee Viewing Center is a well-managed mutually beneficial confluence of nature and industrialization; a happy accident.
How it works: Saltwater from Tampa Bay is pulled into the Tampa Electric Company’s 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.
The Manatee Viewing Center has viewing platforms for an elevated look into 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. You’ll find 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.
THE MANATEE VIEWING CENTER WEBSITE
Another fun offering of the Manatee Viewing Center is on the website itself. They offer two live webcams so you can watch the manatees from your cold-as-the-Arctic office in Massachusetts. Or in my case once upon a time, 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. (The East cam is the best cam.)
TAMPA’S MANATEE VIEWING CENTER | WHO’S IT 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’re 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).
- Basically anyone who likes free stuff
TAMPA’S MANATEE VIEWING CENTER | HOW TO 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 and no recollection of where you were headed in the first place.
If you’ve reached this point, DO NOT TURN BACK. Keep going, you can do this. Drive for about another 30 minutes through an area where you’re sure you’re not supposed to be. Pass the should-be-out-of-commission BBQ joints and the run-down auto mechanics showcasing their supply of old tires. Take a right wherever you see white smoke coming out of tall smokestacks. Go a little further along a metal fence until you dead-end into a parking lot made out of sea shells and I’m pretty sure there’s a sign. With manatees on it.
Just enter the above address into your GPS. But here’s where it is:
TAMPA’S MANATEE VIEWING CENTER | WHEN TO 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 southern Florida hits 68°F–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).
TAMPA’S MANATEE VIEWING CENTER | WHY GO?
- 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. That’s actually illegal.
- Because you really want to get in the hurricane simulator and throw some dollars around to see if you can catch them
TAMPA’S MANATEE VIEWING CENTER | ESSENTIAL INFO
ADDRESS: 6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach, FL
HOURS: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm daily (closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, and Easter)
ADMISSION: Free admission, free parking
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