By LOIS KINDLE
With only the few bouts of cold weather we’ve had in South Shore thus far, the Manatee Viewing Center’s 31st season is off to a bit of a slow start…manatee-wise, that is. But as soon as water temps dip below 68 degrees, the warm-blooded sea cows will swarm into TECO’s Big Bend Power Station’s warm water discharge canal, a state- and federally designated manatee sanctuary.
Meanwhile, there’s still plenty to see and do at South Shore’s premier attraction, said Jamie Woodlee, the senior environmental technician who has been with the center for 18 years and has overseen its daily operation for the past 16.
“I still love being out here,” she said. “And after all these years, I still get excited to see all the manatees when they show up and the looks on the faces of visitors who have never experienced them before. That’s so contagious.”
Woodlee quickly points out though that while manatees are the stars, stingrays are popular supporting actors.
“People love them. They’ve been a wonderful addition,” she said. “They provide visitors with something to experience when the manatees aren’t so plentiful and broaden their visit.”
This season’s enhancements include a widened porch area in front of the center’s gift shop to make the area more user-friendly and improve traffic patterns; enhancing the support structure of the deck portion of the 900-foot tidal walk; adding new shell to more than 2 miles of a self-guided, looped nature trail; and adding a new cash register system in the gift shop. While none of these things may seem overly exciting, they’re all intended to improve visitor experience.
In addition to its visiting Florida manatees and its cownose and southern stingrays, the 50-acre attraction at 6990 Dickman Road in Apollo Beach features a large butterfly garden; an education center filled with full-color, interactive displays; native and Florida-friendly plants garden; 40-foot observation tower providing a panoramic view of Tampa Bay; snack bar; souvenir photo stations; picnic area; and three different natural habitats for people to explore.
The center is open annually from Nov. 1 through April 15. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It closes at 3 p.m. Christmas eve. Admission is free.
At the height of the season, hundreds of manatees can be seen on any given day.
“The highest count ever was over 800 in the canal,” Woodlee said. “Six hundred and fifty-two showed up one day last January, so it’s not uncommon when the weather is really cold for people to see 500 or more.”
During the 2016-2017 season, the Manatee Viewing Center’s attendance was 384,000 and a similar, if not larger crowd is expected the 2017-2018 season.
“TECO offers the viewing center to give back to the public and show that power plants and nature can co-exist if done right,” Woodlee said. “We’re proud to be one of the cleanest, coal-powered power plants in the state and pleased to provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about manatees in Florida wildlife.”
For more information, call 813-228-4289 or visit www.tampaelectric.com/manatee, where you can learn all about Florida manatees, which remain a threatened species.