Mix Fun, Education and Environmental Awareness on An Eco-Tour of Tampa Bay
Three times a day, a covered catamaran departs from Gate 23 at the St. Pete Pier for a special trip around Tampa Bay. It’s part pleasure tour and part sightseeing tour, but it’s also something much more important than that. It’s a tour that educates people about the ecology of Tampa Bay — not as a region, but as a body of water — Florida’s largest open water estuary, comprising 400 square miles.
The tours are run by Tampa Bay Watch, part of the programming that takes place out of the nonprofit’s Discovery Center on the Pier. Tour guests get up-close views of marine life and learn about dolphin and manatee identification and behaviors. The boat nudges close to a mangrove island and bird sanctuary near Snell Isle.
These Discovery tours are hands-on and fun! Each excursion is hosted by a professional marine biologist who offers insights into Tampa Bay’s ecology, while describing the myriad wildlife and their role in maintaining a healthy estuary. For the record, here’s what the term “estuary” means: a semi-enclosed body of water where freshwater from rivers mixes with saltwater from the ocean. The guide also hauls in buckets of water and empties them into a glass tank so guests can see the various species up close, and in some cases, even handle them!
It wasn’t that long ago that Tampa Bay was in poor health. Widespread development, ever-increasing commercial and recreational use, and the dumping of sewage had led to a sharp decline in sea life. By the early 1980s, some considered the bay on the brink of collapse. Tampa Bay Watch was founded in 1993 to foster a healthier estuary through volunteer, educational and outreach programs. Over the decades, improved regulations, ecological master plans and massive rescue programs — along with the efforts of Tampa Bay Watch and other organizations — have given the bay new life.
In fact, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the volume of seagrass — a valuable barometer of the bay’s health — has nearly doubled, from a low of 21,600 acres in 1982 to 40,300 acres in the mid-2010s. But Tampa Bay is not yet in the clear; the same organization noted a 16 percent drop in seagrass from 2018 to 2020.
That’s why a nonprofit like Tampa Bay Watch is so vital. The fees from the eco-tours ($22 adult, $14 children) and admission to the Discovery Center ($8 adult, $6 children) help fund its tireless efforts, contributing to the ongoing health of Tampa Bay. And a healthier bay makes for a nicer tour!
The current eco-tour schedule is:
Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.; 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m.
Thursday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.; 2 p.m.; 7:15 p.m. (with a sunset!)
Tickets can be purchased at the Discovery Center on the Pier or online.