Watching the lumbering mammals that congregate at the Manatee Observation Area at the Florida Power & Light Company's Riviera Plant, it's easy to see why they fall victim to speeding boats. Manatees are able to swim at a speed of 20 miles per hour in short bursts but usually travel at only 3 to 5. Lolling languidly in the warm outflow canal of the steam power station, though, they have nothing to fear. A string of buoys keeps boats away from the channel, where the manatees hang out just beneath the water's surface and pop their whiskered, wrinkled snouts up every five minutes or so for a breath.
As a mother and calf rest near the bottom, where they can stay for up to 20 minutes, a pair of gray-and-black-striped sergeants major swims patterns between them, while a small school of barracuda lurks nearby. Apparently they too prefer the warm waters manatees seek out in winter. With no natural predator, the major factor in manatee mortality -- other than getting hit by boats -- is cold weather. The thin-skinned animals have a slow metabolism, and they die from hypothermia if exposed to cold water for a prolonged period.
The 2600 manatees that researchers estimate live in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean off Florida's coasts range as far as Alabama and Virginia during the warm summer months. As winter approaches they head south to find warm water. When even Florida waters turn chilly, below 70 degrees or so, manatee search out natural warm-water springs and power-plant discharge areas. Here in South Florida, that happens usually only in January and February, when hordes of the gentle, vegetarian animals show up at the plant.
Located near the West Palm Beach-Riviera Beach city limits, the electric company's stories-tall, blue-girder scaffolding and red-and-white-striped smokestacks loom over Lake Worth lagoon. Not exactly what you'd consider a picturesque wildlife spot. But driving through the plant's gate (ignore the "Authorized Personnel Only Beyond This Point" sign), visitors are greeted by a low, concrete-block wall on which a brightly colored mural depicts frolicking manatees. Across the parking lot, a chainlink fence is set in the concrete bulkhead that runs along one side of the power station's effluent-release trough, a shallow channel about 50 feet across and 100 feet long. The water comes out of the pipes at a comforting 71 degrees, which today is some three degrees warmer than the lagoon into which it drains.
"Many of the natural, warm-water springs that [manatees] used several hundred years ago just don't exist anymore," according to Winifred Perkins, FPL's manager of environmental relations. Development has wiped out many such sites, she says, so places like power plants have become important to manatee survival. The Riviera facility is the only one in Palm Beach and Broward counties with a public-access area for viewing the docile beasts, and because of the clear, shallow water here, it provides one of the best views.
Logically enough, viewing is best right after a cold front sweeps through, when as many as 200 manatees have been known to clog the plant's canal. But even on a relatively mild recent weekday afternoon, as many as ten silhouettes are visible against the sandy bottom of the seasonal manatee bathtub: a couple pairs of mothers and calves and a handful of solitary males, almost all of which have boat-propeller scars.
While the center provides a warm-water sanctuary for manatees and a photo op for humans, it also offers education. A 30-minute manatee video is shown in the visitor center, where FPL retiree volunteers answer questions about manatees and hand out pamphlets on protecting them.
The best promotion for the species' survival campaign, though, is seeing the creatures themselves. Peering down at them live and up close in the observation area, you can't help but notice how cute their homely mugs are -- "cute" like pug dogs and flat-faced Persian cats.