APOLLO BEACH, Fla. (WFLA) – The TECO Manatee Viewing Center has been a staple in the Tampa Bay area for over 30 years.
As of Friday, it is open for the season through April 15.
The Tampa Electric-owned center is located across from a Tampa Electric power plant and its discharge canal. To operate the plant, cold water is needed to cool down parts of its system. That creates hot, uncontaminated water, which is discharged into the opposite side of the plant.
That warm water is enticing to Florida’s manatees. Contrary to popular belief, manatees only have around 2 percent body fat and get chilly easily.
“When the bay water temperature goes below usually 70, 72, manatees start coming in. They can’t withstand water colder than 68 degrees for any length of time. So they have to seek out warm water,” Senior Environmental Technician Jamie Woodlee told 8 On Your Side. “So they come see us. And we can have 300 to 400 manatees in here at a time.”
Woodlee told us the highest count of manatees in the canal has been over 800, according to a flyover by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While the best months to view manatees at the center are the coldest, including January and February, there is still plenty to do at the Manatee Viewing Center while we enjoy the warmth.
“We have the education building which has a lot of great photos, a lot of good information. We have puzzles and some computer games. We have a 10 to 15-minute movie about manatees. We have the rays touch tank. We have nature trails, 50-foot observation tower that you can see a beautiful view of the Tampa Bay area,” Woodlee explained.
If you keep your eyes on the water in the canal, you’ll see many different species of fish including jacks, mullet, needlefish and tarpon.
Guests can also see black-tipped sharks, spinner sharks and different species of stingrays in the canal amongst the manatees.
As of opening day, Woodlee said a few manatees are milling about, almost as if they’re checking to see if the water is still warm near the power plant.
“You may see a manatee come and go, they’re checking us out to make sure we’re still here,” she explained.
Woodlee advises guests to dress for the weather and wear walking shoes to explore the center’s vast nature trails and tidal walk. But it’s worth it to brave the elements, even when it’s “cold” here in Florida.
“Where else can you see manatees up close and personal and see all of Florida in such small space, sitting next to a power plant to show you that we can work hand in hand?” Woodlee said.
Both parking and admission are free at the TECO Manatee Viewing Center.
The center is open Nov. 1 through April 15 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The center closes at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Guests may need to park in overflow parking and take a free shuttle to the center on busy days, according to Woodlee.
The Manatee Viewing Center features miles of nature trails ending in a 50-foot tall observation tower, a 900-foot tidal walk to view manatees and other wildlife, a stingray touch tank in partnership with The Florida Aquarium and the education building.
Travel time to the Manatee Viewing Center (links will update to current traffic conditions, weekday afternoon conditions listed):
– From downtown Tampa: 27 minutes
– From Brandon: 25 minutes
– From New Port Richey: 1 hour, 12 minutes
– From Lakeland: 52 minutes
– From Bradenton: 39 minutes
– From Sarasota: 51 minutes
– From Orlando: 1 hour, 31 minutes