By LOIS KINDLE
Due to the temporary closure of Big Bend Road, between Wyandotte Road and Dickman Drive, some folks think the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center hasn’t opened yet. Nothing could be further from the truth, said Jamie Woodlee, its senior environmental technician for the past 20 years.
“We opened, as always, Nov. 1, and we’ve already had scores of manatees in the canal,” she said. “When the water temperature gets into the low 70s, they start coming in.
“This past week, in addition to manatees, we’ve seen different types of sharks, rays, birds and fish, including a massive tarpon,” she said.
The 50-acre viewing center’s season runs annually from Nov. 1 to April 15. Last year, 330,000 people turned out to spot manatees, pet cownose rays in its stingray touch tank and visit the center’s environmental education exhibit, South Shore Café, 50-foot observation platform, Florida-friendly landscaping and butterfly garden, nature trails, 900-foot tidal walk, gift shop and more.
At the height of the season, hundreds of manatees bask in the warm waters of the TECO discharge canal. The highest count ever made was more than 800.
“Sometimes, the canal is so packed with manatees huddling together, they look like stones across the water,” Woodlee said.
Even when the sea cows aren’t present, the viewing center is a fun, outdoor experience for folks of all ages.
“It’s a great place for families, very visitor friendly, fully accessible, and it’s free,” Woodlee said. “You can learn all about Florida, its habitats and its wildlife.”
The Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center was designated an official manatee sanctuary by the state in December 1986. It opened that month on the weekends only that same year.
In February 1999, it had its 1-millionth visitor, and in 2002 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service designated the Big Bend Canal a Federal manatee sanctuary.
By the end of the 2005-2006 season, the center had reached its 2-millionth visitor.
“We’re hoping to reach our 6-millionth visitor this season,” Woodlee said.
The award-winning Manatee Viewing Center is at 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach. Its hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It closes at 3 p.m. Christmas Eve.
To get there, from U.S. 41 North or South, head to Apollo Beach Boulevard and turn west, go to Dickman Drive, where you’ll turn right. Go to the end of the street, and you’ll see the viewing center parking lot on the left. Admission and parking are free.
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.