Manatee Viewing Center

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MVC Webcam IconWatch for manatees

Check to see if manatees are at the center using our east and west Web cameras from home!

Come join us

Tampa Electric's award-winning Manatee Viewing Center is open November 1 - April 15, from 10 AM to 5 PM.
Nature Trail and Wildlife Observation Tower close at 4 PM.
Address: 6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach, FL 33572
Phone: 813-228-4289

Have a large group? Let us know by sending us a group reservation.

 

ManateeThe Manatee Viewing Center

Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach has delivered reliable electricity to the community since 1970. Manatees gather in large numbers in the power station's discharge canal, where saltwater – taken from Tampa Bay to cool the units' flows, clean and warm, back to the bay. When Tampa Bay reachs 68 degrees or colder, the mammals seek out warm water refuges such as springs and power plants. Big Bend's discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary that provides critical protection from the cold for these unique, gentle animals.

As the Tampa Bay area is changing and growing, so too is Big Bend station, where Unit 1 is being converted from coal-fired to natural gas combined-cycle technology. This means cleaner land, air, and – with more than just the manatees in mind – water. One thing that won't change is the clean, warm water that comes out of the power station into the discharge canal. The manatees are sticking around!

Inside the MVC's environmental education building, colorful displays immerse you in the world of the manatee and its habitat. Meander through a mangrove tunnel, drift along a seagrass bed and take a dive into a spring. You can also learn about a few of our local manatees. Come face to face, or we should say snout to snout, with the dangers manatee face and learn how we can help protect these marvelous mammals! Inspect actual manatee bones and piece together puzzles. And before feeling the blast of a hurricane in the center's simulator, find out more about hurricanes and how Tampa Electric prepares for and responds to major storms.

Outside, stroll among award-winning butterfly gardens and Florida-friendly landscaping. You also can see a variety of native and coastal plant life as you stroll along the center's tidal walk. Catch a glimpse of animals in the wild that make the center's habitat their home.

A towering symbol of our environmental commitment

Along the Manatee Viewing Center's habitat loop trail – a winding route through natural Florida – you'll arrive at a boardwalk that takes you to our wildlife observation tower. Marvel at the surrounding habitat, including the estuary below, from a 50-foot-high vantage point. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the tables at the base of the tower. And on clear days, see all the way across Tampa Bay!

Wildlife TowerBuilt and located to minimize the impact on the environment, the tower, boardwalk and habitat trail are part of a network of trails that connects to the Florida Conservation and Technology Center, a partnership between Tampa Electric, the Florida Aquarium, University of Florida and the Florida Fish and wildlife Conservation Commission.

To access the tower, park at the Manatee Viewing Center. Here are some things to help you get the most out of your visit:

  • Be prepared for approximately a mile-long walk; select the right shoes.
  • Restrooms are located at the Manatee Viewing Center and the Clean Energy Center.
  • To get to the top of the tower, you must climb several flights of steps.
  • Apply bug spray and dress appropriately (the tower will be closed in the event of severe weather).
  • Visitors with sensitive health conditions, including those aggravated by exertion, should use caution if they decide to go to the tower.
  • No food or water is available at the tower.
  • Feeding wildlife is prohibited.

 

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Manatee DrinksAll about manatees

What do manatees eat? How do they reproduce? How big are manatees? For these questions and many more, here's a resource that has information about these unique creatures.

Natural history

The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) is believed to have evolved from a four-footed, plant-eating land mammal more than 60 million years ago. Its closest modern land relatives are the elephant, hyrax and aardvark. The West Indian manatee belongs to the order Sirenia, which also includes the West African manatee, Amazonian manatee, the Pacific located dugong and the extinct Steller's sea cow. The Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee.

Fossils of the present day manatee, as old as two-million years, and fossil ancestors of the dugong, as old as 45-million years, are found in Florida. These fossils are often found on dry land, in areas that were once shallow bays and estuaries, when sea levels were higher.

Manatee: mammal or myth?

Legend has it that sailors who caught the first glimpse of the manatee mistook it for the Greek mythical "siren," a temptress who lured sailors to deadly reefs, rocks and treacherous waters. Christopher Columbus provided us with the first reference to the manatee in his logbooks from 1493.

Manatee habitat

Florida's waters host a variety of aquatic life. Perhaps one of the most mysterious is the Florida manatee. The Florida manatee is a large, plant-eating, warm-blooded marine animal found in Florida's shallow coastal waters, rivers and springs. At first glance, the behavior of the manatee appears simple and unstructured, but the behavior is specifically adapted to Florida's sub-tropical climate.

Appearance

The average adult manatee, or "sea cow," is about 10 feet long and weighs approximately 1,200 pounds. It has a large, seal-like body that tapers to a large, spatula-shaped flat tail known as the "paddle." The two forelimbs or flippers of the manatee are paddle-shaped with up to four nails at the tip of each flipper.

The finely wrinkled skin of the adult manatee is gray or gray-brown. The hair is thin and far apart, except for the stiff, brush-like facial whiskers, which help the manatee forage for food.

Sight & sound

The manatee's eyes are small and are protected by inner membranes, which can be drawn across the eyeballs. Research indicates that the manatee can differentiate colors, but that its depth perception is limited. The manatee can hear well, even though its ears contain no external lobes. Its nostrils, located on the snout, are tightly closed by flaps of skin when the manatee is underwater and opened when it surfaces to breathe.

Eating habits

Manatees are known as generalist herbivores. They will eat anything green! They can eat up to 15 percent of the body weight in aquatic vegetation each day. Manatees eat submerged and floating vegetation.

In motion

The manatee is generally a slow moving creature and is content to simply glide along, moving forward by using its tail and steering by using both its tail and flippers. Manatees can, however, swim up to 20 mph. Manatees use their flippers to help them swim and to hold vegetation while feeding. For its large size, the manatee is quite nimble, performing such underwater feats as upside-down swimming, head and tail stands and barrel rolls.

At rest

The MVC CenterThe manatee rests from two to 12 hours per day. It remains motionless with its eyes closed, either lying on the bottom or suspended near the surface. Air compression in the lungs allows the manatee to sink without exhaling or using its tail or flippers. While resting, the manatee may rise to the surface to breathe every seven to 20 minutes. When active, they breathe every three to five minutes.

Reproduction

Manatees reach sexual maturity in two to five years. Even though female manatees form very strong bonds with their calves, they do not form permanent associations with males after mating. After a gestation period of approximately 13 months, female manatees, called cows, bear one calf. Twins are a rare occurrence. During the first two years of its life, a calf remains very close to its mother's side for nourishment and protection. Cows give birth every two-and-a-half years, so it is quite possible to see a mother with a larger, older calf and a new, smaller calf at the same time.

At birth, calves are almost black in color, three feet long and weigh between 60 and 80 pounds. The calf nurses from its mother's teats, located at the base of each flipper. During feeding, the mother can sometimes be seen rolling on her side or back to help the calf suckle. While calves are sometimes seen mouthing vegetation soon after birth, their long weaning period of up to two years allows time for the digestive tract to fully develop. This is important for animals who eat vegetation containing cellulose, so they may fully absorb nutrients.

Population and distribution

Manatees are commonly found in coastal rivers, estuaries and canals. They move freely within salt, brackish and fresh water habitats, often in water less than six-feet deep, where underwater vegetation is most abundant. Manatees are a migratory species; scientists estimate there are 6,000 in Florida's waters

 

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Cownose RayPartnering with the Florida Aquarium to "Rays" our game

Manatees aren't the only creatures you can see up close at Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center – on our ground floor between the education building and Big Bend Power Station's clean, warm-water discharge canal is a captivating exhibit with sea life you can touch!

Our rays touch tank, which we proudly present to you in partnership with the Florida Aquarium, has another exciting distinction: it's the off-season home of the actual mascots of Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays! Get a fascinating look at cownose rays swimming just inches away.

Please remember: Like all animals and humans, the residents of our touch tank deserve our deepest respect – visitors to the Manatee Viewing Center must refrain from any contact beyond letting them lightly graze your fingertips as they glide past; splashing water in the pool is also not allowed.

With that said, what do you know about these magnificent creatures? Here are a few things about them that you might find noteworthy.

Cownose Ray: Typically brown-backed with a whitish or yellowish belly, a cownose ray can grow to about 45 inches in width and live for 16 to 18 years. With its dental plates, it crushes clams and oyster shells for food. Cownose rays prefer brackish and marine environments, and they can dive to about 72 feet below the water's surface. With the stinging barb on its tail, the cownose ray is highly capable of defending itself!

 

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Tidal FlatsThe tidal walk

A featured part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, the Manatee Viewing Center's tidal walk offers more than just vibrant birdlife. On this 900-foot, ADA-compliant walkway from the center to the Tampa Bay Estuary, you can identify a wide selection of native coastal plants and animals. At the end of the walkway, you can view manatees in Big Bend Power Station's clean, warm water discharge canal. For illustrations of more life along the tidal walk, download and print the Tidal Walkway Nature Trail guide. PDF Icon

Mangrove Forest

As you continue down the Tidal Walk, you'll notice one plant that dominates – you have moved into the mangrove forest. Mangroves are one of Florida's true natives, and are critical to the health of the Tampa Bay estuary. There are three types of mangroves in the Tampa Bay estuary: white, black and red mangroves. You will see all three species along the Tidal Walk.

You are most likely to see mangroves in any coastal community from Tampa Bay south.

Mangroves are very important to the ecosystem because they are the base of the food chain, provide valuable habitat, prevent erosion, filter out pollution, and are important nursery areas for shellfish, crustaceans and juvenile fish. You may even see a nonvenomous mangrove water snake, a subspecies of the Gulf salt marsh snake. It's coloration can vary but typically includes reddish or orange pigmentation.

Mangrove ForestMangroves can live in both freshwater and saltwater; the mangroves along this Tidal Walk are thriving where fresh water meets salt water. This fascinating plant obtains fresh water from salt water. The White and Black Mangroves excrete excess salt through their leaves, while the Red Mangrove blocks absorption of salt at their roots. Nature is an amazing thing! Even though they are not endangered, red, white and black mangroves are protected plants, which means that state and local regulations have been enacted to protect Florida's mangroves. Mangroves cannot be removed, pruned, or disturbed on either state or private land without a permit from local or state agencies. Be sure to check with officials in your area before taking action!

White mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa): Identify a white mangrove by its leaves. They are light yellow green, oval-shaped and have a notched tip. Additionally, the leaves have two distinguishing glands at the base of the leaf blade where the stem starts. The two glands pump out the salt and sugar that the plant produces. You may see ants or other insects enjoying the sugar. The white mangrove usually grows in the highest elevations farther upland than either the red or black mangroves. The white mangrove has no visible aerial root systems like the black or red mangroves.

Black mangrove (Avicennia germinans): At high tides, the water will cover the roots of the Black mangrove. This is the largest of the mangroves and can grow up to 50 feet tall. It has numerous breathing tubes, called pneumatophores, which grow vertically up from the mud and provide air to the roots. The leaves are slender and pointed with a silvery gray backing. As you walk, notice the difference between the white and black mangrove leaves. You can see that the black mangrove leaves are lighter in color than the white mangrove! The leaves are often coated with salt crystals which were eliminated from the tree. It was thought that early Native Americans used the leaves when cooking to add a salty taste to their food. The seeds are lima bean-shaped and actually germinate while still on the tree. The seeds float in the water until they wash up on a shoreline and find a sandy spot to settle into.

Red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle): Usually found along the waters edge, this tree is easily identified by the tall, arching roots called prop roots. These roots add stability to the tree. The leaves are dark green and waxy. The torpedo-shaped seeds are called "pencils" and can remain alive for up to 12 months while floating in the water.

Coastal Berm

This area of sandy, high ground is called a coastal berm. This is a ridge of sand, shell and debris created by storm tides. Coastal berms are common along the southwest Florida coast. In mangrove areas like one, storm winds and waves are not powerful enough to build up sand dunes. Coastal berms support a variety of vegetation types because the materials that create them can be so varied. Notice the sea grapes growing on the berm.

Shoreline Habitat

Fiddler CrabPlants and animals living along the shoreline have had to adapt to several environmental stresses. Low soil oxygen levels, tidal fluctuations, and drought conditions brought on by a salty environment make life here a challenge. Since this is an area sometimes covered with water and sometimes exposed, a host of animals, both terrestrial (land-based) and marine, make use of it.

At low tide, look on the mud flat for the footprints of raccoons, ibis, egrets, herons and others who have come to feed on crabs, worms, mollusks and other tasty critters. The low tide also provides an excellent opportunity for wading birds to feast on fish trapped in tide pools or swimming in the shallow water.

The small holes you see in the mud belong to marine worms that live below the surface (in the benthos). The holes provide a way to obtain both oxygen and food, as well as a way to discharge waste. This shoreline community plays a vital role in the estuarine food web – providing food and shelter for terrestrial and marine organisms of all shapes and sizes. The smell at low tide is proof that the system is working. As organisms rot and decay they form detritus, the slimy, foul-smelling muck that is the basic food of the entire system.

Tampa Bay Estuary

Now you have reached the Tampa Bay estuary. An estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water where salt water from the sea mixes with fresh water from rivers and streams. This mixture is known as brackish water. There are many types of fish such as spotted sea trout, snook and tarpon that can be seen in the water. The easiest one to see and identify, however, is the mullet. This fish is frequently seen in large schools, and jumps out of the water.

Watch for large diving birds, like the Brown Pelican, feeding on schools of fish. Also notice the large black-colored birds perched on the pilings with their wings spread apart. This is the Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings in the sunshine. Unlike most water birds, this bird does not have oil in its feathers, so it must periodically dry its wings out in order to fly.

Keep an eye out as well for the leaping spotted eagle ray, which can jump completely out of the water. The southern stingray and the cow-nosed ray will glide along in the shallow waters on either side of the tidal walk.

 

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Vitual Visit

Download these PDF files for an assortment of virtual activities and fun, all while learning.

Activities & Coloring Sheets

Activity Workbook PDF Icon
Coloring Activity Book PDF Icon
Coloring Sheet PDF Icon

Presentations

Meet the Manatees PDF Icon
MVC Overview PDF Icon
MVC Virtual Visit PDF Icon

Brochures & Fact Sheets

Florida Mangroves Facts PDF Icon
Manatee Anatomy Facts PDF Icon
Tidal Walk Brochure PDF Icon

 

Frequently Asked Questions

A. We are closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and Easter. On Christmas Eve we close one hour early.
A. Parking is free to the public and overflow parking is available as warranted just to the south of the MVC.
A. That's up to you! You are welcome to stay as long as you like. We are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The average group spends one to two hours. (The wildlife observation tower and habitat trails close at 4 p.m. daily).
A. Florida weather can be unpredictable, so please check the weather forecast before arriving. We are open rain or shine. Shoes and shirts are required during your visit. Closed toed shoes are recommended, and don't forget your sunscreen.
A. Yes, we wouldn't want you to miss the opportunity to capture your favorite moments! Please note, professional photography is strictly prohibited without prior consent.

Drones are also prohibited.

No footage of our MVC, either still image or video, may be used for any purpose other than personal use. Therefore, reproduction, modification or retransmission in any form, by any means, for reasons other than personal use, is strictly prohibited.
A. Yes, come check out our Gift Shop! We have all of your favorite items, from plush to travel mugs and so much more. Check out our new online gift store. Have your favorite items shipped directly to you.
A. To support the safety and wellness of team members, we have temporarily paused meet and greets.
A. Smoking is permitted in designated areas only.
A. Pets are not allowed. Only service animals are permitted on the grounds.
A. Yes, and we encourage you to make a group reservation.
A. The Manatee Viewing Center's docents (volunteer educators) help educate thousands of center visitors each season about the Florida manatee, coastal vegetation and bird and fish habitats. The docent's primary responsibility is to greet and interact with visitors and school groups on behalf of Tampa Electric to promote environmental stewardship.

At the Manatee Viewing Center, there are opportunities to share with visitors information about the protected manatee as well as the diverse plant life and amazing wildlife that inhabit Florida's coastal habitats and Tampa Bay waters. Many of our docents have volunteered for over 10 years, returning season after season. Volunteering for the Manatee Viewing Center is truly a rewarding experience for you and for the visitors!

If you are age 18 or older and would like to volunteer as a docent, the Manatee Viewing Center will provide you with training materials you need to answer an array of common questions.

We ask that docents commit at least one day a week for three hours for the duration of the center's open season, from November 1 through April 15. During that time, the Manatee Viewing Center is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (the wildlife observation tower and habitat trails close at 4 p.m. daily). Note: the center is closed Thanksgiving, at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Easter.

If you are interested in volunteering and becoming a docent, send us an email from our contact us page (be sure to select Manatee Viewing Center in the pull-down box).

 

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