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Lunch with Ernest

Marketer is now friend of manatees

Published February 13, 2004

In a career that has spanned more than 20 years, Cheryl Johnson has worked in four departments at Tampa Electric, but nothing quite prepared her for her latest task.

Since December 2002, the former stenographer, energy auditor, credit department assistant and marketing representative has been the environmental specialist at the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. The warm water discharge from the adjacent Big Bend Power Plant attracts the manatees in the winter, but Johnson has found her own reasons for being attracted to the facility.

Over grouper sandwiches at Circles Land's End, we talked about making the transition, fishing and why manatees are so fascinating.

ERNEST: Tell me about making the transition from marketing to the environment.

CHERYL: I guess the most difficult part was all the new acronyms and all the terminology I had to learn. For example, someone would say we have a partnership with NOAA. I'm thinking N-O-A-H and it's N-O-A-A, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And not only the government agencies, but all these plants and all these birds and this wildlife. It's just been a whirlwind, but I enjoy it. When I get old enough to retire, it's something I would want to do - teach people about the environment.

Were you an outdoors person before you started this job?

Avid fisherperson. I can outfish most men, deep-sea fish. I want to go out on a boat about 30 miles out where there's no land in sight and I want to catch grouper. Me and my dad were big fishermen.

Is he the one who got you into fishing?

Yes. Ever since I was young. We used to live in Portland, Ore., and the whole family would go salmon fishing up in the mountains. We would catch our fish and that night in the camper we would fry that fish. That's when fish really tastes like it's supposed to taste. Not when you go through McDonald's and you get your Filet-O-Fish value meal.

Did you move from Portland to here?

No, we actually moved from Portland to Japan because my dad was in the Air Force. We fished there, too. We fished everywhere. So I've always been into the environment, but now I'm learning the other side of it.

So you came from Japan to Florida?

Yes. It was kind of neat because we lived on the base but you watched TV and everything was in Japanese. But once a month, they would show The Rookies. Remember that show? You had to turn the radio on and they would have it in English. You turned the sound down on the TV and actually their mouths were moving along with the words. That was a big highlight. Everybody was like, Ooo, The Rookies are on tonight.

So you were 12 when you moved to Brandon?

We moved to Brandon when everybody was like, Where do you live? It was when you could buy a 1,700-square-foot house for $50,000 to $60,000.

The Manatee Viewing Center had 34,000 visitors in January. Maybe you can set the record.

I'm trying to get the Department of Transportation to put a brown informational sign on the interstate, but they won't do it. We don't meet the requirement for number of visitors; I think it's 300,000, but we're only open half the year.

How important are the docents to the center?

They really are our voice to the community, not only about the center but about manatees, about birds, about plants. They're people persons by nature; they don't have to be here if they don't want to, but they are because they love it and they do a great job.

Elaborate on the educational programs you have at the center.

Really, the docent program is the backbone of our educational program. I'm trying to create more outreach opportunities like the YMCA, maybe with the Cub Scouts or the Girl Scouts and other organizations that cater to children. Another thing I did that turned out to be a huge success was I had the docents go to seven schools in the south county area and they talked about different aspects of the manatee. And the kids created 4-foot by 8-foot murals. Originally, the murals were at the Manatee Art Festival. I started getting so many requests from people wanting to show the murals, I took them on a road show. People wanted to buy them.

It seems the marriage between art and manatees works well. You recently added sea life paintings from the Life Enrichment Center to your environmental education building.

Environmental marketing is probably some of the toughest marketing because people don't see how it affects them right here, right now today. That's my challenge. It's really difficult unless you're involved in one of the manatee organizations or you come to something like the Manatee Viewing Center and you can actually see a manatee. This is a docile creature; it has no natural predators in the water. We need to help them along.

Why are people so fascinated with manatees?

I think they're fascinated with them because they're not harmful. Not only do they not harm humans, they don't harm other sea creatures. Fishermen should love them because they don't eat other fish. There's really no reason on earth not to like them.

It sounds like you've enjoyed the transition.

I have. I can see how you can easily develop a passion for the environment. Hopefully, I'll be here for a while.

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Johnson, 40 and single, took a leave from Tampa Electric in the late 1980s to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. In addition to fishing, she enjoys watching football and riding on her recumbent cycle. She has performed on stage as a singer (she compares her voice to Natalie Cole), and she's taking salsa lessons at the West Tampa Convention Center. The Manatee Viewing Center is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 1 through April 15, and includes an observation deck, a 900-foot pier and an education building. The artwork produced by Life Enrichment Center clients, on display in the education building, is truly impressive and is for sale.

- Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section of the St. Petersburg Times. Lunch With Ernest is edited for brevity and clarity. To suggest lunch partners, call Ernest at 226-3406 or e-mail

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 13:07:17]

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