By LOIS KINDLE
Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, South Shore’s most popular attraction, is open for its 33rd season.
With the area’s unseasonably warm weather, only a few of the gentle giants have recently popped by to check things out before heading back out into the bay, said Senior Environmental Technician Jamie Woodlee. But as we begin donning our sweaters and jackets, they’ll be back with hoardes of others.
When Tampa Bay’s water temperature dips to 68 degrees or colder, hundreds of manatees seek refuge in the warm-water discharge canal at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station. They’ve done so since the early 1970s.
For now, it’s pretty quiet in the canal, but sea cows aren’t all the Manatee Viewing Center has to offer.
“To see much of what is here, you’d have to go to several places, which can be very expensive,” Woodlee said. “Everything we offer is free, including admission. Visitors who come here get to see a lot Florida’s ecosystem in a very small area, and we offer a variety of family friendly, fun things to do.”
Visitors enjoy the center’s stingray touch tank, where they get an up-close experience with cownose and southern stingrays. There’s also an environmental education center with colorful displays and interactive activities; a 900-foot tidal walk surrounded by native and coastal plant life; looped nature trail; 50-foot wildlife observation tower overlooking the Tampa Bay Estuary; Florida-friendly landscaping and butterfly gardens; picnic area; gift shop and souvenir photo stations.
There’s even a hurricane simulator.
“The Manatee Viewing Center proves you really can have fun while learning about the natural treasures of Florida,” said Stan Kroh, manager of Land and Stewardship Programs for Tampa Electric, in a recent press release. “We’re proud to be the showcase for Tampa Electric’s commitment to environmental stewardship.”
The viewing center has a few paid employees but is staffed primarily by about 40 volunteer docents. They assist visitors, provide information about manatees and the viewing center and answer questions. Retired TECO employees also help run the facility.
Admission and parking are free.
The award-winning Manatee Viewing Center is at 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It closes at 3 p.m. Christmas Eve.
The facility is ADA-compliant and completely accessible.
Each season, the 50-acre Manatee Viewing Center draws nearly 400,000 visitors. For more information, call 813-228-4289 or visit www.tampaelectric.com/manatee.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center
WHERE: 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach
WHEN: Nov. 1 through April 15; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve (open until 3 p.m.), Christmas and Easter.
COST: Free parking and admission
INFORMATION: Call 813-228-4289 or visit www.tampaelectric.com/manatee.