Recently, the Defenders Florida team visited the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, Florida. Nancy Gloman and Michelle Davis from our national headquarters, volunteer Cathy Connolly and Defenders’ National Council member Barbara Long also came along; this was an opportunity no one wanted to miss. That’s because the viewing center, located at the Tampa Electric Big Bend Power Station’s discharge canal, gives visitors the rare opportunity to see hundreds of manatees at once, resting in the warm water the power station pumps out.
When we first arrived at the center, we came to a mangrove-covered walkway that led us out onto a very long dock. As we walked further down the path, we noticed how LOUD the power plant is, drowning out almost all natural sound. Then, as we emerged from the trees, we were treated to a spectacular– and surreal– sight: manatees, as far as the eye can see! Big ones, little ones, mothers with calves, some resting, some rolling around and some floating on their backs basking in the sun. Other species, such as sting rays, could be seen swimming through the shallow water.
While it was exciting for us to watch so many manatees together, it was also a little sad to have to see them in the shadow of a very large, very loud power plant. Manatees seek out warm-water areas whenever the water temperature dips below 68 degrees or so. Before the advent of power plants, manatees relied solely on warm-water springs and other natural areas for refuge in the winter months. But now, power plants are both a source of warmth and a big potential problem for manatees, as around 60% of the manatee population has become dependent on artificial sources of warm water at power plants. Loss of warm-water habitat is a serious long-term threat to manatees.
If the Tampa Electric Big Bend Power Station or other electric plants are shut down or experience equipment failure, it could mean death for many of these manatees, which may only know these locations as an escape from cooler winter waters. In fact, these discharge canals are designated manatee sanctuaries because they are so critical to the species’ survival. Some power plants host over a thousand manatees during cold weather events, making these groups of animals extremely vulnerable in the event of a power failure or outbreak of disease.
This is why it is so important that we protect the manatees’ natural habitat, and restore our natural springs. Artificial sources of warm water like the power plant are uncertain and aren’t sustainable for future generations. Defenders is dedicated to protecting coastal habitat and natural springs for manatees, and establishing refuges and sanctuaries that keep them safe from collisions with speeding boats. Our ongoing work to improve protections for manatees in Kings Bay in Crystal River, Florida is a primary example of this work. We are also working with government agencies and other organizations to create a plan to wean manatees from artificial sources of warm water.
Our visit to the Manatee Viewing Center during the winter was an unforgettable experience. With careful management and restoration work, we can enjoy the sight of manatee gatherings at natural springs and protected sanctuaries for years to come.
Shannon Miller, Florida Program Coordinator