Experience the bizarre conjunction of industry and nature at the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center, anytime you happen to be in the Tampa area on a cold day. It’s a unusual attraction that sort of just happened on its own. After the Big Bend Power Station Unit 4 began operation in 1986, people began to notice large numbers of manatees swimming in the immediate area. The coal-burning electric plant uses water from Tampa Bay to cool Unit 4, intaking saltwater and then letting it flow back into the bay. The discharged water is unpolluted, but it is several degrees warmer than the bay’s natural temperature, heated by contact with the machinery. When temperatures dip below 60°F in the Tampa area, the warm-water-loving manatees feel uncomfortable, so they naturally begin congregating in the warmest part of the bay—the water just outside Unit 4.
Today there’s a designated viewing center, complete with a boardwalk pier, that’s free to visit and open to the public 10am-5pm between November and mid-April. And while your chances of encountering a manatee in the wild are fairly slim elsewhere, here you’ll likely see not just dozens but hundreds of the aquatic mammals enjoying the toasty water. Manatees are friendly and curious, and will often approach the pier and even emerge from the water for a close-up photo. And Trichechus manatus isn’t the only species that likes the warmth, either—there’s a good chance you’ll see eagle rays and spinner sharks leaping out of the shallow water, as well as Atlantic tarpon, sheepshead, jack, fiddler crabs and assorted birds.
There’s a 900-foot birding trail just a little ways away that makes its way through a coastal berm, and is lined with mangroves and all the flora and fauna they support. A butterfly garden further enhances the nature experience. If you can’t handle free, there’s the gift shop and concessions, and a tiny museum that educates visitors on both manatees and the power station, including not only the usual informational displays but hands-on exhibits like an assembleable manatee skeleton, video games, and a hurricane simulator.
The center can be found at 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach, FL 33572.