APOLLO BEACH — Much like birds that flock to Florida in winter seeking warmer climates, Florida’s endangered manatees flock to warm water outfalls near power plants or natural springs that gush 72-degree water year round.
Sensing an impending mercurial plunge this week, about 100 manatees have made their way to Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center on the edge of Tampa Bay, near the Big Bend Power Station.
So, too, guests are pouring into the center to get a glimpse of the sea cows, a number of which brought their babies. One mother manatee rolled and played with twins on Monday, much to the delight of those perched on a wooden tower above the Tampa Electric (TECO) outfall canal.
Viewing centers like the one next to the power station here are an important resource for the imperiled manatees, because with those visits comes education, said Pat Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit statewide group that works strictly on protecting sea cows.
“Power plants’ warm water outfalls absolutely remain critical to manatees,” Rose said. “If we lose a Canaveral or a TECO, that would be catastrophic.”
The state makes it mandatory for power stations to have a manatee protection plan, so there are no outages in winter that would eliminate the warm water outfalls the marine mammals have come to depend on. And, said Rose, “we made a conscious decision in 1980 or 81 that it was worth maintaining some level of human engagement. And having people come to a place like that makes those visitors advocates to support manatees.”
Both initiatives are working.
“We’re getting lots of manatees and lots of people,” said Manatee Viewing Center Director Jamie Woodlee. The manatees “can sense the drop in temperature even before it happens. You can tell by when they start coming in.”
Elmer and Sandy Stephens drove from Lake Wales. “I just wish the wind would die down, so we could get a better view,” Elmer Stephens said, as the wind whipped and the temperature continued to drop in the early afternoon. “This is really a great facility.”
The gigantic marine mammals have had a tough time as of late, with 800 deaths last year, a new record. That makes the warm water outfalls from power plants even more important, Rose said. Manatees are susceptible to cold and have come to depend on the warm water flowing from power plants to protect. They pass along the locations to their offspring.
“There have actually been cases in the past where manatees would come to a place that historically had warm water, even after a power plant had shut down,” Rose said. “In some instances, they would wait for the warm water and die in the process.”
Since opening 28 years ago, the TECO viewing center has steadily grown to include an educational program, a concession, learning center, board walks and a larger viewing platform. The center, located west of U.S. 41 on Big Bend Road, is free and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 1 to April 15.