Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Manatee Center

I know, I know. A walk that is less than half a mile roundtrip and can be done in flip flops does not deserve to be called a hike. Especially when you can expect to see 100 other people and it is in the shadow of a power plant:

But when the walk is guaranteed to provide multiple wildlife sightings -- of both terrestrial and aquatic creatures, with some weighing more than half a ton -- it definitely deserves a mention on a hiking blog. Those of you who have trudged for miles through mountainous terrain hoping to see bears, only to encounter nothing but sparrows, know what I mean.

The walk I am writing about today is waiting for you next to TECO’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach. To cool its generating units, Big Bend takes water in from Tampa Bay and then discharges it into a wide canal so it can flow back to sea. Having gone through the plant, water in the canal is warmer than water in the bay and manatees have figured out that this makes the canal a perfect place to hang out during the winter:

It has been reported that as many as 300 manatees have been counted here at a single time, and perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. Their digestive tracts start shutting down and mortality rates start climbing when water temps drop below 68 degrees, so for them, the canal can literally be the difference between life and death.

Once it became obvious that manatees were a winter definite, TECO constructed a viewing platform in 1986:

In the quarter century since then, additions have been made and the platform has evolved into what is now called The Manatee Center. It includes a butterfly garden; environmental education building; gift shop; concession stand; and picnic tables.

Plus, it includes the Tidal Walk: a 900-foot pathway along the canal’s southern edge. The walk begins on the opposite side of the educational building from the viewing platform. Elevated for its entire route, it slips through a strip of mangrove forest and ends on a dock facing toward the open waters of Tampa Bay:

Manatees require not only warm water, but clean water, and therefore the canal and its shore support a plethora of wildlife. You will see animals galore not only from the platform and Tidal Walk, but also on the short walk between the two. This picture of a yellow-crowned night heron was taken on that “walk between”:

This one of fiddler crabs was taken from the Tidal Walk:

Along the Tidal Walk I have seen not only manatees and crabs, but sharks and dolphins as well, so keep your eyes out for them. And while you’re at it you are sure to notice that pelicans are ubiquitous:

The Manatee Center is open from November 1st to April 15th, and it is free. To reach it, take exit 246 from I-75 in southern Hillsborough County, then drive west for 2½ miles to the intersection of Big Bend and Dickman roads and follow the signs.

Happy Trails!

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