PUBLISHED NOV. 3, 2016
By LOIS KINDLE
More than sea cows are expected to lure hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center, which opened for its 30th season Tuesday.
“We offer families and out-of-town visitors a slice of Florida in a small space,” said Jamie Woodlee, senior environmental technician over operations. “It’s a free, fun and educational experience and an opportunity for them to learn how industry and nature works (harmoniously) side by side.
“We’re looking forward to another record-breaking season,” she said.
Woodlee noted guests can see manatees, fish, rays, seabirds, crabs, mangroves, an estuary — essentially anything they might see in Tampa Bay — during their visits.
In addition to features like its tidal walk, 40-foot observation tower overlooking Tampa Bay, self-guided nature trail with up-close views of varied plant and wildlife habitats, interactive education center, butterfly garden and Florida-friendly plants garden, some changes introduced over the summer are sure to please new and returning guests, Woodlee said.
The most exciting one is a 10,000-gallon, 600-square-foot touch tank built to hold 15 South Atlantic and cow nose rays, she said.
“We will be the winter home for the rays that live at Tropicana Field during the summer,” she said, adding the tank won’t be ready for occupancy until late November. “Florida Aquarium personnel will care for the rays and man the (tank area) to provide information and answer questions about them.”
Other changes over the summer include widening the boardwalk leading to the manatee viewing platforms to make them ADA-compliant; remodeling the 10-year-old concession; enlarging and modernizing the upstairs restrooms; adding three small boardwalks to flood-prone sections of the nature trail; and adding new items in the gift shop.
For the past 29 years, hundreds of thousands of visitors have come each year to the viewing center located on the south side of TECO’s Big Bend Power Plant’s warm-water discharge canal in Apollo Beach. The canal is designated as a state and federal manatee sanctuary.
Manatees are drawn to it when the water temperature in Tampa Bay drops to 68 degrees or cooler. When that happens, there are times when hundreds of the gentle mammals can be spotted congregating near the power plant.
While observing its 30th season, the viewing center expects to celebrate its five-millionth visitor. From now through April 15, the 50-acre attraction will feature arts and crafts for kids every weekend; an increased number of photo ops with Molly the Manatee; treasure and scavenger hunts; visits by representatives from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo and other organizations; and visits by area pirate krewe members like the Krewe of the South Shore Marauders.
Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center is at 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week through April 15, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and closes at 3 p.m. Christmas Eve. It’s also normally closed on Easter, but next year the holiday falls on April 16, the day after the center closes for the summer.
The center is staffed primarily by dozens of volunteer docents who inform and assist visitors and answer questions. Anyone who’d like to be one can contact Yasmine McComber at 813-228-1486.
Admission and parking are free. For additional information, call 813-228-4289 or visit tampaelectric.com/manatee.