Explore the Shore (and Manatees Galore) on the Tidal Walk Trail
An exciting addition to this year's Hillsborough County Hiking Spree is the 1.7 mile Tidal Walk trail, at the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. This federally-designated manatee sanctuary is part of the Florida Conservation and Technology Center, a project made possible through a public-private partnership between Tampa Electric, The Florida Aquarium, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The Tidal Walk trek begins at the center's 900-foot boardwalk, an ideal vantage point to observe manatees congregating in the discharge canal. These gentle giants of the sea return to this spot each year during cooler winter months to enjoy clean, warm water that is circulated back into the bay from the Big Bend power station.
The trail continues at the southwest corner of the viewing center's parking lot and features four distinct coastal habitats that are rich with native plants and wildlife:
Mangrove Forest: These tropical trees serve as the base of the food chain and provide a valuable habitat to adult and juvenile sea life, along with filtering out pollution and preventing erosion. Along the trail, you'll encounter all three species of mangroves found in Florida - white, black, and red.
Coastal Berm: This area of higher ground is comprised of sand, shell, and storm tide debris. Vegetation here includes familiar sea grapes and coin vines. As temperatures cool, sea grape leaves change colors, providing beautiful shades of orange and red along the trail.
Shoreline Habitat: Plants and animals in this habitat have adapted to tolerate a variety of environmental stresses, including tidal fluctuations and drought conditions. Here, you may observe raccoons, egrets, or herons feasting on small crabs or mollusks.
Tampa Bay Estuary: At the end of the trail path is a 50-foot-tall observation tower that looks out onto the Tampa Bay estuary, the semi-enclosed body of water where the bay's saltwater mixes with fresh water from nearby rivers and streams. In addition to manatees, you may spot snook, tarpon, or spotted sea trout, along with schools of mullet that leap out of the water. In the sky, large diving birds like brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants hunt for fish and dry their wings in the sun.
The Manatee Viewing Center is located 2.5 miles west of Interstate 75 at 6990 Dickman Road. Parking and admission to the trail and exhibits are free. The facility is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the trail closing at 4 p.m., until April 15. Except for service animals, pets are prohibited. You can bring food and water to enjoy a picnic at tables at the base of the observation tower, but alcohol is not permitted. Be sure to allow time to check out the environmental education center, stingray touch tank, and butterfly garden. It takes about two to four hours to walk the trail and visit the exhibits.
The Tidal Walk trail is just one of 26 trails at 22 locations on the 2022 Hillsborough County Hiking Spree. Complete at least eight trails by March 31, 2022 to earn a patch, medallion for a walking stick, or a pet bandana. For more information and to register, visit HCFLGov.net/HikingSpree. Share your photos with the manatees at the Tidal Walk trail using the hashtag #TakeAHikeHC.
Photo: Top - courtesy of Tampa Electric.