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Tampa Electric unplugs a manatee celebration

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Photo courtesy Tampa Electric Company
Numerous cousins of this endearing, gentle manatee are expected as guests of honor in mid-January when Tampa Electric Company celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Manatee Viewing Center adjacent to the Big Bend power plant at Apollo Beach. Harmless and slow moving, the mammal that grazes on plants sometimes is referred to as the sea cow. Manatees are protected by law and are highly vulnerable to injury from boat motor props. This photo was shot by a Tampa Electric photographer of a manatee recovering from injuries in the Lowry Park Zoo’s “manatee hospital”. The two-day birthday celebration featuring activities and give-a-ways at the MVC is open to the public free of charge.


APOLLO BEACH – Molly Manatee is on notice, Disney Radio is scheduled, food is ordered, commemorative beads are being strung, exhibits are arranged – all that remains is getting word to the party’s guests of honor.

Party giver Tampa Electric Company is counting on a nippy little cold snap by mid-January to telegraph their invitations – no RSVPs required. But, if history is any guide, the thousands of anticipated party goers are not likely to be disappointed due to no shows by honorees.

Manatees_at_MVCAlthough the two-day party on January 15 and 16 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the utility’s Manatee Viewing Center (MVC) would go on without them, the annual influx of coastal manatees seems a pretty sure thing, observed Stanley Kroh, manager of land and water projects for Tampa Electric.

The sea cows, known to range for hundreds of miles up the nation’s eastern seaboard during warm months, usually seek the clean, comfortingly warm water flowing from the utility’s Big Bend power plant into its discharge canal immediately north of Apollo Beach when outside water temps drop to 68 degrees. In fact, in early January, 2009, when a cold snap held on for more than two weeks, at least 350 manatees settled into the canal area to give MVC visitors an extraordinary up close and personal experience, Kroh recalled.

Utility staff generally does not name the legally protected manatees relaxing in their version of a warm springs retreat, but returning individuals occasionally are identified because of the boat motor scars on their backs, the manager allowed. Plus, Lowry Park Zoo personnel just released to the wild TECO II along with Howard, named for an MVC staffer, after nursing the two injured males back to health.

Manatee_Viewing_Cen265F772Regardless of the number of the slow-moving, seagoing mammals who stop off in the canal this coming January, though, the utility plans to celebrate them with every sense. Disney Radio, a station for kids which broadcasts at 1380 on the AM dial, will be onsite describing the scene, interviewing visitors, perhaps trying to get a travelogue from a particularly outspoken manatee on both days, according to Rick Morera, Tampa Electric spokesman. The station’s remote broadcast direct from the MVC on Saturday is set for noon to 2 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m.

And, if none of the manatees in the water want to float in place long enough for an interview, Molly Manatee, the MVC mascot, will be on hand, on land, Morera said. Molly, who well may tip the scales at about the same weight as one of her more aquatic kin, is, however, closer to human size in height and tends to get around in an upright position, Kroh added. Accompanied by her handler, Molly is expected to attend both days, interacting with visitors, providing youngsters of all ages with unforgettable visual impact.

The utility also has ordered large quantities of manatee sugar cookies from Alessi’s Bakery, one of Tampa’s most popular premier bakers, to tempt the taste buds of visitors, Kroh said. The cookies, shaped like sea cows, are to be frosted in appropriate colors and individually wrapped for protection and convenience. Aromatic hot, buttered popcorn, a proven favorite at previous MVC observances, will be available, too, Kroh said.

On all but the most inclement weather days from Nov. 1 through April 15 each year, visitors line the railings at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center to observe close-up huge but harmless manatees relaxing in their version of a warm springs resort. Clean, warm water outflowing from the utility’s power plant near Apollo Beach attract the mammals when Tampa Bay and Gulf water temperatures dip into the high 60s. The utility will be celebrating a quarter century of manatee viewing and education on January 15 and 16.
Both savvy adults and trend-following youngsters will find a lot to touch during the quarter century anniversary party. Tampa Electric plans to introduce its new MVC logo with a freshly cast medallion on strings of colored beads, ala Gasparilla style, and there will be plenty of silly bands in manatee shapes for the junior set. “We think the medallion could become a collector’s item,” Kroh noted.

Several tents will be set up around the viewing center site where activities as well as exhibitors are slated. One will house a variety of arts and crafts designed for children, including picture making and face painting, Kroh said. Others will host a variety of displays from invited exhibitors such as the Lowry Park Zoo, the Florida Aquarium, the Save Our Seabirds Sanctuary and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The occasion also gives the utility an opportunity to introduce to the general public its own newly revamped exhibits at the MVC, Kroh indicated. The expanded displays have become considerably more interactive, he said, inviting hands-on participation. Similarly the MVC gift shop has been doubled in size, to give both visitors and area shoppers with manatee lovers on their lists a wider range of souvenir and gift items, he said.

In addition, Tampa Electric will be showing off a new solar power installation near the MVC site. Eight steel utility poles – each supporting ten 210-watt all back contact mono-crystalline panels – were set in place during October, Morera said. The 80 panels produce 16.8 kilowatts and when added to older panels on the roof of the exhibit building, can provide about 37,500 KWh annually. The utility estimates this amount of sun power is equivalent to taking four cars off the road for a year or planting 7.5 acres of trees and generates enough to keep three average homes operating. The solar project was made possible by the company’s renewable energy program in which customers voluntarily take part of their energy from renewable sources, Morera added. The energy produced also helps power the MVC.

The entire two-day anniversary observance is open to the public and all of its activities, exhibits and almost all of the celebration treats — including all conversations with visiting manatees — are free of charge. The only nominal charge involved is for the manatee cookies, Kroh said. Parking also is free and shuttle buses will ferry visitors from off-site parking lots on both days, he added.

The Manatee viewing Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, between November 1 and April 15, each year.

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson
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