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Manatees and Snowbirds both look to Florida for warm winter comfort

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Folks fleeing the chill of northern winters are not the only mammals now anticipating the warm waters of sub-tropical Florida.

Just as New Yorkers and Minnesotans and Ohioans by the hundreds will escape their snow drifts and freezing temps this winter, so will hundreds of West Indian Manatees make for pockets of warmer waters along Florida’s Gulf Coast. A good many of them will glide into the comfort of power plant discharge ponds where they’ll be welcomed with exclamations of delight as photographers focus and humans lean in for better looks.

One such place is the Manatee Viewing Center created in the mid--1980s by Tampa Electric Company at its Big Bend power generating plant on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay at Apollo Beach, a few miles south of Tampa. The center, open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM (except Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Days and Easter) from November 1 to April 15, offers both an entertaining and an educational experience for manatee followers and novices alike.

Florida Manatees, sub-species of the West Indian Manatee, begin making their way into the utility’s warm, clean discharge canal, as soon as the bay water temperature drops below 68 degrees, according to Stanley Kroh, manager of land and water projects for Tampa Electric. .Here, in water warmed in the power plant’s cooling operations, they will loll about, clearly visible to visitors assembled on the along the 900-foot tidal walk. Large though they are, manatees will turn barrel rolls, stand on their heads and/or tails, even show off their babies.

Manatee skeletal remains going back more than 2 million years, examined by the scientific community, indicate they once were land-based, walking on four legs, ranked as distant cousins of elephants and aardvarks. Early references to their sightings as water-borne creatures were noted in the logbooks of Christopher Columbus during his voyages to La Florida in 1492.

Today’s Florida Manatee may grow to a length of some 10 feet, weighing in at 1,200 pounds or better. The seal-like body, usually gray or gray brown in color, tapers to a large, flat fluke often likened to a spatula. Two front flippers can have as many as four nails each at the tips. They have excellent hearing, although no external ear lobes, small eyes but credited with ability to distinguish colors, and nostrils that close tightly underwater.

Manatees are enthusiastic herbivores, eating as much as 15 percent of their body weight each day. Placid and slow moving – hence the moniker “sea cow” – they may rest for hours at a time during a manatee day, surfacing for air perhaps every 20 minutes or so.

After being romanced by a male, mama manatee will forget him, carry her young for about 13 months, then deliver a single 6o to 80-pound calf, who initially is almost black in color. She devotedly will care for and coach the youngster for as long as two years, nursing the calf from nipples under her front flippers. It is not unusual to see a mature female manatee with both an older calf and a young baby in tow.

Tampa Electric’s MVC includes both the tidal walk taking viewers up close and personal with manatee families and an enclosed educational facility using colorful displays along with interactive exhibits to tell the Florida manatee story in detail. The walk, which is ADA compliant, is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. In addition, the center encompasses a butterfly garden. .

Migratory by nature, the Florida manatees will “winter” in and around the warm utility discharge canals such as the one flowing into Tampa Bay until water temps in larger water bodies reaches for 70 degrees. Then, just like other visitors from northern climes, they will ease on out and leisurely chart courses north along the Gulf Coast or through the Florida Straits to access the Atlantic coastline, sometimes cruising as far as New Jersey.

As sure as snowbirds on Florida’s beaches in December, the manatees will return again with the first cold snaps.

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