Food Feature: Tampa's ugliest draw

Wrinkled winsome manatees look for a little warmth

The directions to the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center say to look for signs after exiting Interstate 75. They could just as well have said to look for the giant smokestacks rising from the utility's Big Bend power plant. The setting of this seasonal educational center is a somewhat surreal merging of nature and technology, but it works. (The white plumes unfurling from the stacks are water vapor, not smoke.) Manatees seem to be the "it" mammal of late, certainly from among the aquatic side of the family. One Florida reporter wrote that the gentle creatures look like giant sweet potatoes; to me, they look considerably less appetizing. But they are so ugly as to seem almost cute. And sweet. And they are truly endangered, mostly because of motorboat propellers.

I lived in Florida for 13 years and never once had the pleasure of encountering a "sea cow" in the wild. Most of the time they dwell in Florida's coastal waters, rivers and springs. But when water temperatures drop below 68, they gather near warm-water refuges such as natural springs or industrial discharges to escape hypothermia or illness caused by the cold. At the free viewing center, whenever the Tampa Bay water temperature dips, you're pretty much guaranteed to see manatees in the plant's warm-water discharge canal.

During a prolonged cold spell about a year ago, up to 300 were present, said Pat Simms, the center's coordinator. In the most recent official count, also about a year ago, the Florida Marine Research Institute spotted 3,276 manatees in state waters.

The temperature determines when the manatees will visit. Last season, the manatees didn't start visiting until late 2001 because of the warm weather. I visited in early January and saw about a dozen from the observation deck, though I'm sure many more were out of view. Visibility is only a foot or two into the water, but the manatees do surface to breathe, roll about or simply float. One propped itself up for about a minute, seemingly surveying the scene. Visitors are close enough to easily see the barnacles and propeller-blade scars on the mammals' backs. The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs 1,200 pounds. It has a large seal-like body that tapers to a spatula-shaped flat tail. Its wrinkled skin is gray or gray-brown and it has brush-like facial whiskers, which visitors are close enough to see.

A nice feature at the observation deck is an amplified introduction to the manatees and the center, because no one wants to be reading a brochure instead of watching the real thing.

The Manatee Viewing Center opened in 1986 as a community service, said Simms: "The manatees chose this canal, and we responded to the community." Though about 1 million visitors have come to see the manatees, the center just two years ago started to list itself in guidebooks and distribute brochures at tourist information centers.

The center continues to grow, and now has an education building, a classroom, a gift shop selling all sorts of manatee-decorated items, and a self-guided nature trail along a 900-foot pier through mangroves. Inside the center there is much information on manatees, including a full-sized skeleton, underwater photographs and a life-size fiberglass reproduction. There's also information on coastal water birds, Florida landscape design, butterfly gardens, and, of course, electricity and the Tampa Electric power plant — which, by the way, emits only recycled saltwater and nothing harmful into the manatee hot tub.

Outside, the pristine beauty of the surrounding land on the undeveloped side of the center is only slightly offset by the constant hum of the power plant's generators on the other side.

The center is staffed with friendly volunteers, many of them retired Tampa Electric employees, one of whom was recently honored by having a manatee named for him by scientists who occasionally capture and tag some of the animals for research. If you're lucky enough to visit the center at that time (announced only a day in advance), you're allowed to watch the proceedings.


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