If you’re looking for something to do with out-of-town guests, want to take the family for a little getaway or simply would like to get close to nature — Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center may be just the place.
The center, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, is open each year from Nov. 1 through April 15.
Located at 6900 Dickman Road in Apollo Beach, the center attracts people from all over the world, said Yasmin McComber, an environmental specialist there.
“A lot of the locals love it. Then, the snowbirds come down, so they’ll be here, too. You have a lot of retirees — this is how they work out. They take our nature trail for an hour or two,” McComber said.
Last year, the center drew 277,000 visitors during the peak season for manatees. It expects its 5 millionth visitor in January.
Kimmy Smith, from Riverview, was there on a recent day. She wanted to show off the center to her mom, Pam Fattic, who was visiting from Pendleton, Indiana.
Smith said she’s visited the center on numerous occasions.
“I come all of the time when manatees are in season,” she said, noting she’s been there 10 to 15 times.
“Seeing manatees is hit or miss,” Smith said, but she estimates she’s seen one during about 80 percent of her visits.
It doesn’t bother her if she doesn’t see a manatee because there are other things, such as butterflies and a nature walk, to enjoy, she said.
Smith’s mom, who was making her first visit to the center, liked what she saw.
“It’s really pretty. I love this. It’s just beautiful. I didn’t expect it to be so big,” she said.
No matter how many times a person visits, the experience is never quite the same, McComber said.
“Every day, things change. It’s nature,” she said.
“People sometimes complain: ‘There’s no manatees,’” McComber said. But, that’s beyond the electric company’s control. The manatees come and go as they please, she explained.
“They started coming here in the mid-1980s,” she said, because of the warm water near the plant.
When Tampa Bay reaches 68 degrees or colder, the mammals seek out this refuge, McComber said.
The discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary that provides protection from the cold for the manatees.
“Cold water comes in from the outside. It cools down our machinery, then it is pumped back (warm) into the water,” she explained.
The ideal time to visit is when it is between 50 degrees and 60 degrees outdoors, McComber said. “The air temperature is cold, and the water’s cold. They’re looking for warmth. The first two weeks in November were perfect,” she said.
Spotting a manatee can be tricky, she said. “You have to keep your eyes on the water.”
But, even if you don’t see a manatee, there’s a good chance you’ll see other interesting wildlife.
“You’re going to find fish. It can be a bull shark, a spinner shark or black-tip sharks. Then you have your black drum, your sheep head. You have your mangrove snappers, snook and tarpon,” McComber said.
And, there are fiddler crabs, mangrove snakes and other wildlife.
Visitors can get a closer look at Florida’s outdoors along the center’s nature trail, and they can hike the trail to gain access to the observation tower that is 50-feet tall.
Those wanting to visit the observation tower should be aware there are three flights of stairs and no bathrooms there.
But, there are benches, where visitors can rest, and those climbing the tower will be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the Apollo Beach area.
While the center has been open for decades, there have been some recent improvements, including the addition of a rays touch tank and additional restrooms.
Other highlights include an educational center, a gift shop, picnic areas and a butterfly garden.
Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center
When: Open from Nov. 1 through April 15. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The wildlife observation tower and habitat trails close at 4 p.m. daily. Closed at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve and closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
How much: Free admission and parking
Where: 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach, 33572
Please note: Shoes and shirts required; service animals only. The center is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
For more information: Call (813) 228-4289, or visit TampaElectric.com/Manatee.
- Manatees have a thin layer of fat and can become cold stressed if they are in water colder than 68 degrees.
- A manatee’s nostrils have valves that close while the animal is underwater. Manatees can hold their breath up to 20 minutes when resting.
- Manatees are herbivores. Manatees eat up to 10 percent of their weight a day.
- Manatees can travel up to 15 mph in short bursts. They can travel up to 50 miles in one day.
Published December 14, 2016