APOLLO BEACH (FOX 13) - Crisp blue skies made Thursday a perfect day to mark the 30th birthday of the popular TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. And the chilly weather guaranteed that several guests of honor showed up.
The warm water flowing from the Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach runs into Tampa Bay, providing a constant source of warm water for manatees, who prefer water temperatures above 68 degrees. Dozens, even hundreds of sea cows often flock to the plant during the winter – alongside plenty of fish and even sharks.
“They use this as a sauna or a spa and then they leave us for the summer,” laughed TECO’s Jamie Woodlee.
TECO opened the viewing center in 1987 to offer a place for manatee fans of all ages to come and see them in a natural environment. They have welcomed 5 million people to the free attraction in the last three decades.
“The facility is something Tampa Electric wanted to do to give back to the local folks and it ended up being much bigger than we ever anticipated,” Woodlee continued. “We can get over 300,000 visitors in five and a half months.”
Things are usually quieting down by mid-March, but with temperatures approaching record-low levels last night, there were plenty of manatees to spot in the canal – both from SkyFOX and from the boardwalks.
“I saw one over there going up and I saw the whole body!” one excited young visitor exclaimed.
PHOTOS: Manatees seen from SkyFOX
In addition to the manatees themselves, the center boasts nature trails, an education building, and – new this year – a touch tank filled with rays.
“You can bring your family here. It’s educational, it’s outdoors. You can see a lot of Florida in a very small space,” Woodlee added. “We’re just a great place to come and have fun.”