Last weekend we drove to Apollo Beach in search of manatees. A Tampa Electric power plant right by the shore provides an unlikely refuge for the mammals during cold winter months. Warm salt water flows from the discharge canal and back into Tampa Bay, thereby attracting manatees to its source.
We noticed the smoke stacks from the highway. The manatee viewing center is literally a stone’s throw away from Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station. The building is impressive and anomalous. Towering smoke stacks rise from their grassy plot on the earth and into the endlessly blue Florida sky. Nearby, in cool gray waters, the gentle curves of several manatees’ backs break surface. Smooth and dark like some river rocks, their skin shines in the sun.
The Manatee Viewing Center sometimes feels like an amusement park, though really it’s not. What it is, in all actuality, is a bridge you climb and look across in hopes you’ll spot a manatee. There’s a gift shop, and a learning center, and a few funny cartoon cut out stands where you can stick your head inside and take a photo as a manatee, but that’s about all. Since we visited in November, we were fortunate enough to see many of these magical creatures. They are truly captivating; I found myself staring out into their stillness several minutes at a time. Sometimes they kiss, roll around, or flash their tails, but most of the time they are at rest. Their faces are large and whiskered, with dark, deep set eyes that give them their gentle–almost sad–and altogether mysterious appearance.