Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach has something for every nature lover

Have you seen a West Indian manatee today? You know, the aquatic mammals that can grow up to 10 feet in length and clock in at 1,200 pounds. They have whiskery snouts, 3-5 cm hairs over their whole body, and expel gas to sink below the surface.

If you're intrigued and would like to see one, Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center in south Hillsborough County is the place to go. There, you can find up to hundreds of wild manatees at a time. Visitors can also see the Rays Touch Tank, a butterfly garden, nature trails, boardwalks, education center, and an observation tower.

When the Florida sun isn't enough to keep warm

Like most warm-blooded animals, manatees avoid exposure to extremely cold temperatures. That's why when the water temperature drops below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, these peaceful creatures seek warmth.

The manatees find refuge in the waters surrounding Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach. The power plant uses circulated water from the bay for cooling the facilities. After use, the water is returned to the bay, clean and heated, attracting manatees looking to stay toasty.

In January 2024, a record 1,100 manatees were gathered at the viewing center at the same time. The manatees have been enjoying the power plant's warm water since the early 1970s.

More than just manatees

When you visit the manatees, be sure to slow down and take in all the interesting sites available at the viewing center. Toward the top of that list of sites to see should be the Rays Touch Tank. The 10,000-gallon, 600-square-foot tank is the off-season home to Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays' mascots. Visitors can see and lightly touch real cownose rays.

Bonnie Houck, a winter visitor from Perry, Ohio, visited the center twice in one week. Besides petting the rays, her favorite center highlight is the educational component.

"I love listening to the [overhead recording] commentary. You're learning something. That's what I like," Houck said.

Interested in seeing birds and other fish? Enjoy a walk on the center's nature paths and boardwalks. A coastal habitat trail winds almost a mile through wetlands, where guests can stroll through the mangroves and estuary. Along the way you'll find a 50-foot-high wildlife observation tower, perfect for taking in a 360-degree view of the lush, scenic area.

Before heading out, visitors can enjoy the education center and butterfly garden. Concessions, restrooms, and a gift shop are also available. The viewing center has something for guests of all abilities, including a 900-foot, ADA-compliant walkway where a variety of native coastal wildlife can be seen.

Admission and parking are always free. The Manatee Viewing Center is open daily from Nov. 1 to April 15 at 6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach, FL 33572.

Image Caption: A West Indian manatee cruises the warm waters surrounding Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach.
Posted: 3/5/2024, 4:18:07 PM