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Manatees warm themselves at TECO’s Big Bend coal-fired power plant just south of Tampa.

Manatees warm themselves at TECO’s Big Bend coal-fired power plant just south of Tampa.

Photographer: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy

Nobody Knows How to Wean Manatees Off Coal Plants

A tale of unnatural symbiosis.

The view from the parking lot at Big Bend Power Station, a 1,500-acre plant built in the 1960s to turn coal into electricity just south of Tampa, includes an unexpected sight. Bordering the parking lot are dozens of solar panels, set against a skyline dominated by three smokestacks whose vapor curls across the blue. The panels are little more than a wink—solar is a small fraction of the energy mix at Big Bend—but they suggest, at least, a hoped-for future when the plant no longer relies on coal.

The temperature the day of my visit was 53F—brisk, but perfect for the unusual sight I was actually there to see. Stanley Kroh, manager of land and stewardship programs for Big Bend’s operator, Tampa Electric Co., greeted me near an empty picnic grove. We headed inside the free exhibit, walking past a line of visitors waiting to pose beside a bronze manatee with a gummy smile. Speakers blared “Welcome to the Manatee Viewing Center, where nature meets technology!” on loop.