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Manatee Viewing Center Open for Winter Season

Residents can watch manatees frolic in the warm waters next to the Big Bend Power Plant.

The cooler temperatures marking the return of fall is once again luring manatees back to the warm-water discharge from Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach.

That's good news for manatee lovers who can watch the friendly ocean dwellers in action at TECO's award-winning Manatee Viewing Center.

Located next to the power plant, the viewing center opens today for the 2012-13 season.

And visitors will find several new features.

  • A walking trail, almost a mile long, will open this season. The self-guided loop is a way to immerse visitors in Florida’s natural environment and includes educational signs.
  • Eight new solar “trees” have been installed. In combination with the 52 rooftop solar panels and the eight solar trees installed in previous years, the solar panels now produce enough electricity to power the education building during the manatee-viewing season.
  • In addition to the center’s award-winning butterfly garden, the center will boast a new garden to showcase Florida-friendly and native plants.
  •  The parking lot has been paved with environmentally friendly permeable concrete, and a sidewalk has been added for visitors’ improved safety.

“Visitors love learning about the endangered manatees, and they love this unique nature-watching destination,” said Stanley Kroh, manager of land and water programs at Tampa Electric. “These new improvements have made this destination even better.”

When the water temperature of Tampa Bay is 68 degrees or colder, manatees gather in the clean, warm-water discharge canal of Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station, sometimes by the hundreds.

Manatee Viewing Center visitors can see the mammals up close from multiple boardwalks and vantage points. The manatees have gathered in the canal to find refuge from the cold since the early 1970s.

The 50-acre Manatee Viewing Center draws an average of more than 200,000 visitors – including about 10,000 school children – each season.

Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day from Nov. 1 through April 15, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

The facility is accessible to people with disabilities, and parking and admission are free.

Visit the center online or call 813-228-4289 for more information.

The Manatee Viewing Center is now on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ManateeViewingCenter and Twitter at @TECOmvc.

Directions:

Take Interstate 75 to Apollo Beach, Exit #246. Turn west on Big Bend Road (C.R. 672). Travel 2.5 miles west to the curve intersection of Big Bend and Dickman roads (view map). The Manatee Viewing Center entrance is on the right.

Note: Pets are not allowed, but service dogs are permitted.

See for yourself:

If you can't make it to the Manatee Viewing Center, no problem. Just go online and access one of two web cameras set up at the center. You can view the manatees congregating in the warm-water canal.

About manatees:

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 relative is the elephant. 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,

West Indian manatees are large, gray aquatic mammals with bodies that taper to a flat, paddle-shaped tail. They have two forelimbs, called flippers, with three to four nails on each flipper. Their head and face are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.

Manatees can be found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals, and coastal areas — particularly where seagrass beds or freshwater vegetation flourish. Manatees are a migratory species. Within the United States, they are concentrated in Florida in the winter. In summer months, they can be found as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts, but summer sightings in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are more common.

Manatees are gentle and slow-moving animals. Most of their time is spent eating, resting and traveling. Manatee are mostly herbivorous, however small fish and invertebrates can sometimes be ingested along with a manatee’s normal vegetation diet. They eat a large variety of submerged, emergent and floating plants and can consume 10-15 percent of their body weight in vegetation daily.

Because they are mammals, they must surface to breathe air. They may rest submerged at the bottom or just below the surface of the water, coming up to breathe every three to five minutes. When resting, manatees have been known to stay submerged for up to 20 minutes.

Manatees can swim up to 20 miles per hour in short bursts, but they usually only swim about three to five miles per hour.

West Indian manatees have no natural enemies, and it is believed they can live 60 years or more. As with all wild animal populations, a certain percentage of manatee mortality is attributed to natural causes of death such as cold stress, gastrointestinal disease, pneumonia and other diseases. A high number of additional fatalities are from human-related causes, most commonly collisions with watercraft. Other causes of human-related manatee mortality include ingestion of fish hooks, litter and monofilament line and entanglement in crab trap lines.

Ultimately, loss of habitat is the most serious threat facing manatees in the United States today. There is a minimum population count of 4,834 manatees, as of January 2011.

The reproductive rate for manatees is low. Manatees are not sexually mature until they are about 5 years old. It is believed that one calf is born every two to five years, and twins are rare. The gestation period is about a year. Mothers nurse their young for one to two years, during which time a calf remains dependent on its mother.

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