Driving North from Port Charlotte on I-75, Terry and I needed a break and some gas. A sign on the off ramp announced a Manatee Viewing Area (6990 Dickman Road) and we decided to explore a bit. The viewing center is near Apollo Beach. Our destination was visible from miles away. We drove straight toward these billowing industrial smoke stacks.We pulled into a fenced in industrial parking lot. Zorro our pet cockatoo was in his travel cage in the back seat, so we decided to go one at a time to the viewing platform. Terry went first. Zorro and I patiently waited in the car. I noticed a "no pets" sign posted next to the gift shop. When she got back, Terry told me I had to do a sketch. She wanted to read a book while sitting on some picnic benches she had found. I carried Zorro's cage to the picnic table. People kept asking questions about Zorro when Terry wandered off to use the bathroom. "How old is he?" "13." "Does he talk?" "Yes, he says I love you and hello." When Terry got back I quickly walked out to the viewing platform.
I didn't see any Manatees in the murky green water but they were there. Manatees congregate here because the coal burning Big Bend Power Station pumps out warm water, which was used to cool unit 4, into the discharge canal that leads out to Tampa Bay. Manatees gather here when Tampa Bay's water Temperature drops below 68 degrees. On January 15th and 16th the viewing center will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. Terry called me on my cell phone just as I was starting the sketch. She was being asked by a volunteer security guard to remove Zorro from the property. I had to lug his heavy cage back to the parking lot.
I made my way back to the viewing platform and got to work. A muffled recorded announcer kept repeating facts and figures over a loudspeaker. I couldn't make out a word of it. I was halfway into the sketch when a female volunteer approached me. She asked what I was doing. My stomach tensed. Something about how she asked the question made me suspicious. I told her I was sketching. She told me that no pictures are allowed to be taken of the power plant for reasons of National Security. She told me there was a security officer at the power plant who kept an eye out for anyone taking pictures. I kept sketching the whole time she was talking. It turned out she was an artist herself. She asked me if I planned to exhibit my sketch. I decided to tell a white lie saying no one would ever see it. She tried to convince me to sketch the mangroves or drive a couple of miles down the road to sketch Apollo Beach. She didn't stop me from sketching however. When she left she simply reminded me that pictures weren't allowed. As I sketched I started to wonder if there was someone on the power plant with a sniper rifle and high powered scope watching my every move. I sketched faster. My experience has been, that after a warning, another person would invariably boot me from the property. Sure enough as I was throwing down watercolor washes, a volunteer in a wheel chair approached me. He asked, "What are you doing?" I sighed and replied, "Sketching." He went on to tell me that one of the volunteers was an artist. I pointed out that I had already met her. He reminded me that no pictures were allowed, then he rolled away, happy. A female tourist asked to see the sketch and after complimenting me she pointed at the power station and said, "Pollution."
I never did spot a manatee though I did see ripples in the water where the snouts would break the water line for a breath. I dropped the sketchbook off in the car before searching out a bathroom. I didn't want to give any volunteers an opportunity to confiscate the sketch. Terry and I were happy to drive away. I should point out that I rerouted some of the pipes and I moved the position of one of the scrubbers to confuse any terrorists who might be using my sketch to hatch any devious plots.