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Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric reopens next week

After more than a year, the public will be invited again to view the manatees that congregate near the warm water of the company’s Big Bend Power Station.
Since the 1970s, visitors have come to see the manatees that gather in the winter at Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station. The viewing center, which closed last season because of COVID-19, will reopen Nov. 1.
Since the 1970s, visitors have come to see the manatees that gather in the winter at Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station. The viewing center, which closed last season because of COVID-19, will reopen Nov. 1. [ ROBERT BURKE | Times (2004) ]
Published Oct. 25
Updated Nov. 5

After being closed for 19 months, Tampa Electric’s award-winning Manatee Viewing Center will open Monday for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

The center closed for the season in March 2020. Last December, Tampa Electric announced it would not reopen its viewing center that winter because of concerns about the coronavirus. The viewing center often drew big crowds at the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach because, as the weather cools, dozens of sea cows congregate in the warm water discharged from the plant.

Manatees gather in the warm water near the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach in early January 2013. They gather there every year when water temperatures drop below 68 degrees.
Manatees gather in the warm water near the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach in early January 2013. They gather there every year when water temperatures drop below 68 degrees. [ Times (2013) ]

Tampa Electric said in a news release that it used the time since it closed to do extensive renovations and repairs of the education building, adding new displays and interactive games. Construction continues on the 500-acre Florida Conservation and Technology Center, which will showcase nature and technology from around the area.

Related: Why you should care that Florida manatees are starving to death

Some buildings will be open Monday, and others will remain under construction through the end of the year. The center is limiting the number of guests inside the gift shop, requiring masks indoors and using enhanced cleaning procedures.

“For the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the Manatee Viewing Center every winter, we have missed you, and we are so glad to welcome you back,” said Stan Kroh, manager of land and stewardship programs for Tampa Electric.

Since the early 1970s, manatees have found refuge there when Tampa Bay’s water temperature drops below 68 degrees. The power station in southern Hillsborough near Sun City Center is a popular place to bring out-of-town relatives over the holidays. The center draws nearly 400,000 visitors every season, according to Tampa Electric, which estimates more than 6 million people have visited there.

In a year that is seeing a record-breaking number of manatee deaths, viewing them as a group could be powerful. The state has recorded 968 manatee deaths in 2021, with more than two months left in the year. The previous annual high was 830 deaths in 2013. Boating accidents are typically to blame, but experts say manatees have starved to death along the state’s east coast because the sea grasses they eat have been decimated by pollution.

Related: Manatee deaths reach record-breaking numbers this year

Visitors can see the mammals up close from multiple boardwalks and vantage points. There is also a stingray touch tank there, a nature trail and a 50-foot observation tower.

Admission and parking at the Apollo Beach facility are free at 6990 Dickman Road. The boardwalks are wheelchair-accessible.

Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting Monday through April 15. It is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, and the facility closes at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended. No pets are allowed except trained service animals.

Visit the center online at tampaelectric.com/manatee where you can see a webcam image of the canal starting Monday, or call 813-228-4289 for more information.