Manatee Viewing Center

Winter in Florida is the best time to see manatees and there are several areas they are known to congregate when the temperatures drop. One of those areas is the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, Florida next to Big Bend Power Plant. A visit to the Manatee Viewing Center makes for a fun family friendly outing. You can easily spend a few hours there with all there is to do.

Entrance ramp and sign to the manatee viewing center

Manatee Viewing Center – The Basics

  • Address: 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach, Florida 33572
  • Driving distance from select Florida cities:
    • Tampa: 25 minutes
    • St. Petersburg: 45 minutes
    • Orlando: 1.5 hours
  • Hours: 10 AM to 5 PM, daily November 1st through April 15th
    • The nature trail and wildlife observation tower close at 4 PM
  • Cost: Free
  • Pets are not allowed, service animals are welcome
Manatee viewing center observation tower in the distance surrounded by plants and trees

Why are manatees at Big Bend Power Plant?

Manatees cannot survive in temperatures below 68 degrees. Therefore, when the temperature drops the manatees flock to areas known to have warmer water including many Florida springs and power plants. At Big Bend Power Plant saltwater coming from Tampa Bay is used to cool the units flow. The clean, warm water is then discharged into the canal by the power plant. The Big Bend Power Plant discharge canal is designated as a state and federal manatee sanctuary.

Big Bend Power Plant with smoke coming out

You can view the manatees from above the water on the viewing platform. Take your time walking along the platform and you might get lucky to see a manatee right below you. If there are a lot of manatees in the water you will also be able to see them rise up from the water from a distance.

Where else in Florida can you see manatees?

Manatees tend to return to the same area year after year when seeking warmer water. Calves learn from their mothers from an early age where to find the warmer water for survival. It is uncommon for manatees to cross from the east to west coast of Florida. Therefore, if a manatee is in the gulf during the summer it will retreat to a location on the west coast of Florida. Similarly, if a manatee is in the Atlantic Ocean during the summer it will retreat to a location on the east cost of Florida.

A manatee swimming in the water taken from the viewing platform

West Coast of Florida  

  • Crystal River Power Point
  • Kings Bay
  • Three Sisters Springs
  • Homosassa Springs
  • Homosassa River
  • Bayside Power Plant
  • Alafia River
  • Big Bend Power Plant
  • Tampa Bay
  • P.L. Bartow Power Plant
  • Warm Mineral Springs
  • Charlotte Harbor
  • Matlacha Pass
  • Caloosahatchee River
  • Fort Myers Power Plant
  • Orange River
  • Ten-Mile Canal
  • San Carlos Bay
  • Estero Bay
  • Marco Island
  • Port of the Islands
  • Ten Thousand Islands

East Coast of Florida

  • Blue Spring
  • Indian River Power Plant
  • Cape Canaveral Power Plant
  • Indian River Lagoon
  • Cape Canaveral
  • Satelite Beach
  • Rivera Power Plant
  • Port Everglades Power Plant
  • Fort Lauderdale Power Plant
  • Coral Gables Waterway
  • Biscayne Bay
Map of Florida with orange shaded areas where manatees migrate in the winter

The areas shaded in orange are where manatees are known to migrate to in the winter.

What can you do at the Manatee Viewing Center?

While it is fun to watch the manatees in the canal there is a lot more to experience at the viewing center. I was impressed with the variety of activities and I definitely learned a few things by visiting.

  • Manatee viewing platform
  • Rays touch tank
  • Environmental Education Center
  • Gift shop
  • South Shore Cafe
  • Great Florida Birding Trail
  • Boardwalk and nature trails
  • Observation tower
  • Clear Energy Demonstration Center
Directional sign at the manatee viewing center showing all of the different activities and which direction they are in.

Rays Touch Tank

Manatees are not the only animal you can see up close while visiting the center. The viewing center is actually the off-season home to the actual mascots of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team! The stingrays are swimming around and you can put your hand into the water to gently touch them as they swim by. They do give the stingrays a break from the crowds so if they are not in the tank when you first stop by just take a look at the sign or ask an employee when they will be back. The tank is located just underneath from the manatee viewing platform.

Two stingrays swimming in the rays touch tank

Environmental Education Center

I highly recommend you spend a little time in the education center. This area is kid friendly, but also great for adults. I enjoyed spending some time walking around the center and reading the various displays. I definitely learned a thing or two about manatees during my visit! Masks were available before entering and were required inside the center at the time of my visit in January 2022.

Manatee figure in the education center with a ruler to measure how tall you are versus a manatee

Nature Trails and Observation Tower

The observation tower cannot be missed. I really enjoyed walking along the nature trails and taking the boardwalk to the observation tower. I counted approximately 72 steps to the top of this 50-foot tower. You can take in the view from all four sides to see various landmarks all around Tampa Bay. The tower even has signs pointing out some of the landmarks you should see from each view point if you aren’t familiar with the area. 

A close up view of the observation tower from the ground

There are four different nature trails marked on the map with the distances listed one way. Blue trail (0.97 miles), green trail (0.62 miles), purple trail (0.71 miles), and red trail (0.42 miles). A couple of these trails overlap and the Tidal Walk combines multiple trails together for a total distance of 2.5 miles. I explored almost all of the available trails and walked about 3 miles during my recent visit. Comfortable shoes are a must when visiting!

Tips for visiting the Manatee Viewing Center

  • If you want to see if the manatees are in the area before you make the trip to the center use the interactive webcam here.
  • The front parking lot tends to get full very quickly, but if you continue down the road there is another much larger parking area. This parking area allows you to enjoy the nature trails on your walk to and from the main viewing platform.
  • If you are participating in the Hillsborough County Hiking Spree the Manatee Viewing Center Tidal Walk is on the 2021-2022 hiking spree official trail list.
  • Restrooms are located at the Manatee Viewing Center and Clean Energy Center
  • Visit the viewing center on a colder day for a better chance to see more manatee. If you are able to go during the week it is also likely to be a little less crowded.
A view of the boardwalk trail from the top of the observation tower surrounded by a lot of plants

Final Thoughts on the Manatee Viewing Center

I really enjoyed my visit to the Manatee Viewing Center. There is plenty to do and it is a family friendly activity. There are several picnic tables in the area so you can grab lunch or a snack from the South Shore Café. They have a variety of menu items including sandwiches, pizza, chicken nuggets, popcorn, chips, and candy bars. Other highlights include the viewing platform, the rays touch tank, nature trails, and observation tower. You can even round out your day by picking up a souvenir from the gift shop!

Looking for other things to do in the Tampa Bay area? Check out this post on Hillsborough River State Park or this post on Honeymoon Island State Park.

Looking for other places to view manatees? Check out this post on Blue Spring State Park. 

The information above was accurate at the time of publishing to the best of the author’s knowledge.

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