Free AND Fun:
The Big Bend Manatee Viewing Station
Delights with Wildlife and Eco-Fun
By Susan J. Young
They're affectionately called "gentle giants" or "sea cows."Officially they're Florida Manatees, a subspecies of the West Indies Manatee.
Whatever you call them, though, these lumbering marine animals are beloved in the Sunshine State.
Yes, manatees are indigenous to Florida. In fact, fossilized remains reveal that the creatures inhabited the state some 45 million years ago.
Today, these warm-blooded creatures frequent a diverse range of Florida waterways. Visitors might observe them in bays, the Gulf of Mexico, rivers, the Atlantic Ocean, at natural springs and even in power plant water discharge canals.
A superb "Free AND Fun" vacation activity if you're in the Tampa Bay area is a visit to the Big Bend Manatee Viewing Station in Apollo Beach, FL.
(Above, a painting at the station's manatee museum depicts the marine creatures in the wild, while the photo at left shows the viewing platform in the shadow of the power plant.*)
In Florida, several power plants around the state including Tampa Electric Company's Big Bend Power Station provide a safe -- and warm -- haven for manatees in wintertime - typically November through March.
When sea temperatures cool below 68 degrees, manatees savor the more tempered waters of the power plant's warm water discharge canal to the cooler Tampa Bay and Gulf of Mexico.
The manatee viewing site is just a few miles off I-75 at exit 246 in Apollo Beach, FL. Once you exit the Interstate, head toward the power plant's smoke stacks. You can't miss them.
As the road curves to the left in front of the plant, turn into the manatee viewing site's entrance on the right.
A Course of Action
Another perk? Parking at the manatee viewing site is free.
This facility is highly accessible for those in wheelchairs.
You'll find a few paved parking spots for vehicles with handicapped stickers or tags. Walkways and boardwalks are interlinked.
(Editor's note: I took my mother in a transport chair to the attraction this week and she was thrilled to be able to view the manatees and eco-areas!).
The goal for all visitors is simple -- to view manatees, other flora and fauna, and to learn about manatees, their lifestyle and how to protect them.
The site has broad appeal. On our recent visit, we encountered many multi-generational families with young children. You'll also rub elbows with college kids, couples, eco-enthusiasts and seniors.
A few housekeeping rules: Don't feed the manatees. The goal is to respect the wildlife and the environment.
In fact, it's illegal to feed, bother, or pursue manatees; the fine is $500. So stick to the walkways and just observe.
Basically, as you enter the facility, you'll find a small shop with souvenirs and nature-focused fare; they carry everything from manatee cups and key chains to Florida style art. I'd suggest bypassing the shop until the end of your visit. Hit the eco-areas first.
Head up the sloping boardwalks to the elevated walkway over the mangrove swamp.
Take the right ramp upward. At the top, you'll arrive at a modest Manatee Education Center (shown at right*).
It's simple -- basically a bench area with placards that profile longtime manatees who've frequented the waterway.
Manatees may live 60 years or so. Unfortunately, many are injured or killed annually by power boats, because of the mammal's slow speed and frequent need to surface.
After a brief stop to read the placards at the Manatee Education Center, then continue to the main event -- the large overwater manatee viewing area off to the left. It extends over the canal.
Linger here for awhile -- and let your eyes scan the waterway's surface for signs of manatees. Be patient. Look for changes in the water - swirls or movement; that usually signals that a manatee is just below the surface.
Binoculars are helpful, but not required. Sometimes the manatees surface right under the platform area; other times they're further out and closer to the plant.
Editor's Note: The colder the weather is in Florida and in local waterways, the better chance of seeing MORE manatees.
I've visited the viewing center in chilly weather (40-55 degrees, for example) in Florida and viewed anywhere from 100-150 manatees seeking refuge from the cold waters.
On my visit just a few days ago, however, the outside temperature and local waters were much warmer; thus, we viewed about 15 manatees. But whenever you go, you're likely to see at least a few of the gentle giants.
What will you see? No, you won't have underwater views of the marine animals (as you would, for example, at the Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo) but you will have surface views from above the water.
It's fun to scan the water and try to anticipate where the manatees will surface for a breath.
Generally, if you see an object in the water that looks like a rock with barnacles (see photos at right and below*), but it only briefly appears and then disappears, you have seen a manatee surface and then submerge.
While active, manatees surface approximately every 30 seconds. If they're not particularly active, they could stay submerged for seven to 20 minutes before surfacing.
You'll regularly see snouts breaking the water's surface. Manatees breathe through their snouts, which often emit a noise that sounds like a snorkeler blowing water out of his or her snorkeling tube.
Look for flippers atop the water. Flippers are small, grey and paddle-like. The manatees use flippers to steer themselves and also to grasp food as they prepare to eat it.
One interesting fact is that any bumps near the end of the flippers are actually fingernails left over from a time when the creatures lived on land millions of years ago.
Recent fossil studies in Jamaica show that manatees evolved from a four-footed, wading, plant-eating land mammal.
You also might spot manatee tails -- essentially large, fan-shaped paddles that may wave back and forth before dipping back into the water. The tail is designed to propel the manatee forward in the water.
Manatees, which have sparse amounts of hair on their bodies despite their smooth, torpedo look, often resemble an odd-shaped ball in the water. They surface and then disappear again beneath the water fairly quickly - although they move extremely slowly when motoring through the water.
How big are manatees? The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long. And these bruisers can weigh about 1,000 pounds!
Manatees are vegetarians. They dine on a variety of aquatic plants, and typically eat 10-15 percent of their body weight daily.
One of the fun things about this free and fun eco-site is that it's more than just seeing manatees, however. You never know exactly what you might encounter.
For example, a variety of fish are also attracted to the warmer canal waterway, among them Bonnethead Shark, Snook, Tarpon, the Southern Stingray, Cownose Ray, and Spotted Eagle Ray to name a few.
On our visit we spotted several varieties of fish. (see photos above.* After you have viewed the manatees at the main area, retrace your steps back down the walkway.
Stay to the right. You'll see the cafe and museum building just ahead (as shown at left*).
Check out the additional manatee viewing areas here. Sometimes, if you don't see a lot of manatees surfacing at one site, you might at another.
The cafe offers snacks and drinks, and it's adjacent to the small manatee museum.
Eco-Exhibits and More
Definitely enter the museum for a walk-through. Museum exhibits are modest but interesting.
Several paintings (portions of which are shown on this page*) show visitors how the manatees live, eat and nurture their young beneath the waters.
Artifacts on display include the skeleton of a manatee. (At right, a family checks out the creature's bone structure.*)
Other exhibits offer gleanings about the site's eco-areas, wildlife and birds.
If you have children, check out the rack with pamphlets (shown in the background of the photo at left*).
Among the offerings is a coloring and activity sheet (depicting the site's flora and fauna, as well as interesting facts) to take home.
Brochures for adults and older kids detail manatee facts, the site's features and the power company's "clean coal" efforts.
There is also a small room focused on power generation and energy technology. After you've perused the exhibits, head out the door and downstairs.
Tidal Walkway Nature Trail
Now it's time for an eco-walk. Head toward Tampa Bay (to the west) to navigate through the Tidal Walkway Nature Trail. (The entrance is shown in the photo at right*)
This nature trail is essentially a "straight walk" on a 900-foot pier that extends out through an eco-area and mangrove swamp to the Tampa Bay Estuary.
An estuary is a semi-enclosed body of brackish water where salt water from the sea mixes with fresh water from rivers and streams.
Along the nature trail pathway en route to the estuary (shown above*), small blue manatee-shaped signs detail the type of trees or wildlife you might see - including red mangroves, sea grapes and fiddler crabs.
Scan the environment around you. Looks for birds, snakes, spiders, crabs and other critters. They may be inhabiting the sky, trees, and even the walkway itself.
You'll find a few benches along the way for those who want to just sit and observe.
You'll likely spot several species of birds, particularly along the water's edge as the trail breaks out of the mangroves and Tampa Bay emerges.
This site is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail (as the sign notes at right.*); for more about the trail, visit http://floridabirdingtrail.com
Among the birds you might see are the Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Egret, , Brown Pelican, Tri-Colored Heron, Snowy Egret, White Ibis and others.
On our recent visit, we spotted a heron (shown at left*), an ibis and seagulls.
While many of the birds are relatively common throughout Florida, others are rare. The Roseate Spoonbill, a pinkish bird with an unusual beak, is a very rare species, and only spotted infrequently.
If You Go
Big Bend's Manatee Viewing Center is open Nov. 1 to April 15. The best time to go, though, is when waters are coldest during the winter season.
During its operational season, the center (one manatee viewing area is shown at right.*) is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The center is usually closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, and it closes early at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Editor's Note: It's always good for consumers to reverify the hours and opening times of any attraction before heading out - particularly if it's a long drive.
Pets are not allowed, but service dogs are permitted
The center is located at 6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach, FL.
For more information, call 813-228-4289 or visit www.manatee-teco.com.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young. Do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.