APOLLO BEACH, Florida – More than 200 manatees are wintering in a balmy canal outside a power plant, the latest exotic Florida animals seeking refuge from the state's frigid temperatures.
Giant eagle rays and spinner sharks joined them in the 70-degree Fahrenheit waters Thursday as onlookers watched them frolic.
"This is a spa for them," said Wendy Anastasiou, an environmental specialist for the Tampa Electric Company.
With temperatures well below normal, some less resourceful animals needed help from humans to survive.
Turtles seem to be the hardest hit, with some 200 rescued Thursday from St. Joseph's Bay in northwestern Florida. They were brought to Gulf World Marine Park, where they will stay warm in a holding pool until they can be released back into more pleasant water.
Along Florida's Atlantic Coast, 93 sea turtles were found floating a lagoon and experts said the cold water shocked their tropically inclined systems. Most were endangered green sea turtles who were sent to research facilities for care.
"We try to collect them and get them to a warm location so we can check them out," said Roger Pszonowsky, a volunteer with the Sea Turtle Preservation Society in Brevard County, Florida.
Freshwater turtles can go into mud and hibernate, he said, but sea turtles don't have the same advantage and that's why they suffer from "cold stunning."
Animals that live in the water weren't the only ones affected. Iguanas fell out of trees in South Florida because the cold-blooded reptiles become immobilized and lose their grip when the temperature falls into the 40s or below.
Things are less dire for the manatees, which are not in immediate danger. On Thursday, the gentle giants at the Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach — some weighing 3,000 pounds — floated slowly to the water's surface to sip air. Every so often, one would surface on its belly, making the crowd on a viewing platform ooh and ahhh.
Anastasiou said it's typical for the giant, vegetarian mammals to seek warmer water in the winter when the temperature of Tampa Bay dips below 68 degrees. Even when it is chilly, the sea cows swim out to the Gulf of Mexico to graze on grass during the day. During cold spells, the animals congregate in massive numbers, which is impressive for the humans who flock to the viewing centers to gawk.