By LOIS KINDLE
The first day of November has always been an exciting time for the folks who work at the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach and for the large crowds anticipating its seasonal opening.
But like so many other businesses and organizations since the pandemic hit, Tampa Electric Co. was faced with making the decision of whether or not to reopen the center on Nov. 1, as it has since 1986.
“Every year at this time, we draw thousands of visitors and their health and safety, and that of our employees, are our No. 1 priority,” said Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs, senior brands and communications specialist. “Out of an abundance of caution, we just couldn’t risk reopening at this time. It was a difficult choice but the right one.
“Everything we do (regarding the center) is part of our environmental stewardship and corporate citizenship,” she said.
The viewing center is tentatively scheduled to reopen Jan. 6, Jacobs said, unless conditions warrant otherwise. When it does, features like its observation tower and manatee viewing deck, boardwalk, gift shop, nature trails and more will reopen, including its new Clean Energy Demonstration Center and enlarged concession area, said Jamie Woodlee, senior environmental technician.
Meanwhile, its staff is getting the facility ready by replanting its gardens, hiring hosts and cashiers and generally sprucing things up. It will also be seeking volunteer docents.
And as the water temperature of Tampa Bay cools down to 68 degrees or less and Florida manatees begin gathering in the warm water discharge canal of Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station, a state- and federal-protected sanctuary for them, the Manatee Viewing Center staff will keep an eye on them.
“One of the biggest things we do is observe the manatees when they’re here and notify FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) if any appear to have problems and need rescuing,” Woodlee said. “We also help out when FWC and one of numerous rehabilitation agencies need to release a manatee in our canal.”
While people wait for it to reopen, they can still experience parts of the Manatee Viewing Center by visiting its new online store, a partnership with the University of Tampa and MacDonald Training Center, or by viewing the center’s live web cameras, when they become operational Nov. 1. Their viewings will be shared at www.tampaelectric.com/manatee and via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
The store carries a limited number of items normally found in the viewing center’s gift shop, things like T-shirts, cups and mugs, decorative items and more. Its web address is https://manatee-viewing-center.myshopify.com.
“We’re updating our site with more information for virtual field trips for students and teachers and anyone home-schooled or disabled,” said Lauren Goldsworthy Gomez, environmental specialist.
“Because of COVID-19, many schools may not be able to plan field trips (like they normally would), so we’re providing information like teacher plans, FWC activity books, coloring sheets and the virtual tour,” Woodlee added. “It’s a work in progress.”
As of last February, when the Manatee Viewing Center’s season was cut short due to the pandemic, 6,000 people had visited the award-winning educational attraction.