Florida: Manatee spotting

The Big Bend Power Station, near Tampa is, even by power station standards, stonkingly ugly. It's an industrial behemoth, all unprettified metal and billowing smoke. To drive three hours across Florida to see it is, at first glance, an absurd thing to do.

By David Whitley
Published 14 Apr 2015, 11:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 17:13 BST

But completely by accident, this power station has become a bizarre wildlife refuge. Or at least the channel of water next to it, eventually leading into the Gulf of Mexico, has. The water used for cooling the power station is discharged into the channel, and upon entry it's considerably warmer than the water it joins.

In 1986, shortly after Unit 4 of the power station opened, some surprise visitors started showing up. Manatees — the loveably docile creatures that look like a cross between a dolphin and a hippo — are a reasonably common site around the Florida coast. But after the first few arrived, plenty of their friends came to join them.

This isn't an unusual sight further up the coast, where hundreds of manatees a day can pour into waterways near hot springs. But it seems the manatees of the Gulf Coast have decided that power station discharge channels do the job just as well.

Manatees need warm water to survive, and when ocean temperatures drop below 20C in the winter months, they scrabble around for somewhere to keep the chill at bay. During this period they morph from being fairly solitary animals to hanging around in packs. One day a local beauty spot can play host to a couple of kayakers, the next it will be closed because 300 manatees have barged in and are showing no intention of moving until the sun comes out for a sustained period.

Gloriously, the channel outside the Big Bend Power Station has now been designated as a state and federal marine sanctuary. Boardwalks and viewing platforms have been built around it, while the relative lack of threat has seen plenty of other wildlife wander on in too. There are huge fish shoals darting back and forth, while tarpon, striped mullet, and tilapia weave between them. Play close attention and there are also stingrays and black-tipped sharks.

White ibis, brown pelicans, ospreys and great blue herons strut among the patchy mangroves. But try as they might, they don't distract the attention from the dozens of grey blobs in the water.

It's impossible to gaze upon a manatee without being filled by warm, giddy joy. There's something so gloriously plodding and ungraceful about them. Only a black-hearted serial killer could feel animosity towards a manatee.

Their closest relatives are the elephant, aardvark and the hyrax, yet they really don't look like any of them. Whiskery faces pop out of the water occasionally, while backs flip out when breaching.

They seem to do very little indeed, other than flipping around every now and then, or nuzzling up to each other in a kiss-like position. Yet there are few creatures on earth that look more like they'd be up for a big cuddle.

Even with the furiously ugly backdrop, there's something so powerfully comforting about big grey podgy blobs in the water that makes in it exceptionally difficult to tear yourself away. The ludicrousness of both the location and the beast brings on a sense of deep contentment — and one that's unquestionably worth going three hours out of your way for.


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