APOLLO BEACH — Doris Gavurnik had only seen manatees on television prior to Monday, the last day of her Florida vacation.
“It's crazy. They're great and this is a great place,” she said, peering over a railing at Tampa Electric Company's Manatee Viewing Center, which reopened for the season on Nov. 1.
Gavurnik, visiting her Riverview family from Stephens City, Virginia, saw mothers and babies and a few enormous sea cows rising to the surface for a breath, then sinking back down into the brown water.
When temperatures in Tampa Bay start to dip, the manatees seek out warmer waters, like those in the Big Bend Power Station outfall canal at the western end of Apollo Beach Boulevard.
An early arrival this year could foretell a cold winter, said Jamie Woodlee, senior environmental technician for the TECO center, which draws anywhere from 190,000 to more than 300,000 visitors annually.
“The same thing happened in 2010, when we had such a cold winter,” Woodlee said. “The manatees came in early.”
While cold weather prompts manatees to congregate, it can also be deadly for them in a year that has already been disastrous.
As of Oct. 29, 769 manatees had died throughout the state, the largest annual manatee die-off in the history of state record-keeping. That number could reach 1,000 before the year is over, Woodlee said.
Early-season visitors to the viewing center said they felt privileged to see manatees in the wild.
“I'm surprised at how ginormous they are,” said Stacey Gavurnik, who brought 8-year-old Evelyn and 6-year-old Rebecca to see the manatees and the dozens of tarpon rolling in the canal. “It just blows my mind.”
“They've been to Disney World and they've been to see Winter the Dolphin, but I didn't want them to leave before they got to see the manatees,” said Dina Hansen, of Riverview, who came to the center with her daughter Raina Hansen, 7, along with her Virginia relatives. “I wanted them to see them in their natural environment.”
The viewing center draws visitors from all over the nation and around the world, Woodlee said.
“We get school groups from throughout Hillsborough County and even some from Pinellas and Manatee counties,” she said. “And we've had tourists from everywhere, including Australia, Japan, England and Germany.”
In addition to the large deck from which people can view manatees, the center is adding a 40-foot tall wildlife viewing tower this year and a solar-powered golf cart path to shuttle visitors from further south on the busiest days, Woodlee said.
Something new and already in place at the center is a nearly life-sized statue of a manatee on the property, constructed by Ocean Creations in Dover.
Guests can also tour gardens on the property and visit a gift shop and a concession for food and beverages. There is also an environmental education center with a wealth of information on endangered manatees, their history and what is being done to protect them.
To learn more about the center, got to www.tecoenergy.com, then click on Manatee Viewing Center.