Sunday, December 4, 2011

In the strangest of places

Who would have ever thought that in order to see colorful waterfowl, dozens of varieties of marine life, and half-ton animals from the endangered species list -- all in the wild -- the best place to go would be right next to the building pictured above?

Actually, plenty of Floridians know that power plants create incidental wildlife sanctuaries during the winter months, but it’s a safe bet that very few tourists are aware of this. Therefore, millions of people who travel to the Sunshine State wind up missing sights that are not only interesting, but free.

The lynchpin in this whole phenomenon is the manatee: an aquatic mammal that bears a passing resemblance to the walrus and is a distant relative of the elephant. Manatees are about 10 feet long, weigh up to 1,300 pounds, and live in both the coastal and inland waters of Florida. Below is a pair that I photographed, but if you want to see a picture of one underwater, go here.

Manatees live in several areas of the earth, of which Florida is the furthest from the equator. That should clue you in that they are built only for warmth. When water temperatures dip below 68 degrees their digestive tracts start shutting down and their mortality rates start climbing, unless they are able to locate warmer water. That is where electric companies come into play.

To cool their generating units, power plants take water in from rivers and bays and then discharge it into canals, where it flows back to wherever it came from. Having gone through the plant, water in these canals is warmer than the water in its original source, and manatees have figured out that the canals are an ideal place to hang out when the Northern Hemisphere tips away from the sun.

TECO Energy’s Big Bend Power Station is located in Apollo Beach on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, 16 miles from downtown Tampa. Back in 1986, TECO constructed a viewing platform at the eastern end of the discharge canal so people could observe the manatees:

In the quarter century since then, additions have been made and the platform has evolved into what is now called The Manatee Center. It includes a butterfly garden, environmental education building, and gift shop. It also includes a concession stand and picnic tables:

And it includes The Tidal Walk: a 900-foot walkway along the canal’s southern edge. Elevated for its entire route, the walk passes through a strip of mangrove forest then travels by unobstructed water and finally ends on a dock looking toward the openness of Tampa Bay.

Along the walk I have seen not only manatees, but sharks and dolphins as well. I have also seen fiddler crabs and yellow-crowned night herons, one of which is pictured in this post’s second photograph. Big fish ply the waters and pelicans seem to be everywhere:

As for the manatees themselves, they are numerous and a treat to observe. Erika, Sarah, and I have been here many times and their numbers have always been in the scores. It has been reported that more than 300 have been counted in the canal at a single time.

Unfortunately, the fact that manatees are in the water and you are not means it is difficult to get good pictures of them. Nevertheless, this shot of a calf nursing from its mother (the teat is near the flipper) is one I will always remember:

If you are going to be in the Tampa area during the winter, you should definitely put The Manatee Center on your list of places to visit. Pack a lunch and take a load off while you’re here by eating at one of the picnic tables. You will see things you are unlikely to encounter in most parts of the country, and unless you buy something from the gift shop or concession stand, you will not have to spend a penny!

Go here for driving directions.


  1. What a wonderful learning adventure for your family.
    25 miles north of us, the St. Lucie power plant has a interactive educational program open the public for free. Manatee's gather there during the winter months.

    PS, Perry Como's house was torn down last month so the owner could build a bigger house for his large family.

  2. How wonderful to be able to watch the manatees! I like your nursing calf and yellow-crowned night heron pictures. We have black-crowned night herons in AZ.

  3. Very interesting that a power plant creates a sanctuary for so many animals. If I'm ever in Tampa, I'll visit this place.
    Lovely photos of the wildlife!