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Tampa Bay is a large, natural harbor and estuary along the Gulf of Mexico on the west central coast of Florida, comprising Hillsborough Bay, Old Tampa Bay, Middle Tampa Bay, and Lower Tampa Bay.
“Tampa Bay” is not the name of any municipality. This misconception probably stems from the names of several local professional sports franchises (including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Rays, and Tampa Bay Rowdies) which seek to draw support from the entire Tampa Bay Area, the hub of which is the city of Tampa, Florida.
Approximately 6,000 years ago, Tampa Bay formed as a brackish drowned river valley type estuary with a wide mouth connecting it to the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to that time, it was a large fresh water lake, possibly fed by the Floridan Aquifer through natural springs. Though the exact process of the lake-to-bay transformation is not completely understood, the leading theory is that rising seas levels following the last ice age coupled with the formation of a massive sink hole near the current mouth of the bay created a connection between the lake and the gulf.
Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest open-water estuary, extending over 400 square miles (1,000 km2) and forming coastlines of Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties. The freshwater sources of the bay are distributed among over a hundred small tributaries, rather than a single river. The Hillsborough River is the largest such freshwater source, with the Alafia, Manatee, and Little Manatee rivers the next largest sources. Because of these many flows into the bay, its large watershed covers portions of five Florida counties and approximately 2,200 square miles (5,700 km2). The bay bottom is silty and sandy, with an average water depth of only about 12 feet (3.7 m).
Tampa Bay’s shallow waters, sea grass beds, mud flats, and surrounding mangrove-dominated wetlands provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. More than 200 species of fish are found in the waters of the bay, along with bottlenose dolphins and manatees, plus many types of marine invertebrates including oysters, scallops, clams, shrimp and crab. More than two dozen species of birds, including brown pelicans, several types of heron and egret, Roseate spoonbills, cormorants, and laughing gulls make their year-round home along its shores and small islands, with several other migratory species joining them in the winter. The cooler months are also when warm-water outfalls from power plants bordering the bay draw one out of every six West Indian manatees, an endangered species, to the area.
Tampa Bay has been designated an “Estuary of National Significance” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Two National Wildlife Refuges are located in Tampa Bay: Pinellas National Wildlife Refuge and the refuge on Egmont Key. Most of the islands (including several man-made islands built from dredge spoil) and sandbars are off-limits to the public, due to their fragile ecology and their use as nesting sites by many species of birds. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program keeps watch over the Bay’s health.
In Tampa’s early days, the easiest way to get to Fort Brooke was by boat. But by the late 19th century, the deeper drafts of newer vessels meant that much of naturally shallow Tampa Bay was not navigable by commercial shipping. When Henry B. Plant’s railroad reached the area in 1885, he continued the line past Tampa and across the Interbay Peninsula, where he built the town of Port Tampa on Old Tampa Bay. He wanted to create a new port for his fleet of steamships.
To alleviate the problem of the shallow bay, the US Army Corps of Engineers began dredging operations in the early 20th century. The Corp currently maintains more than 80 miles of deep-water channels in Tampa Bay; these must be continuously re-dredged and deepened due to the sandy nature of the bay bottom. Dredging has enabled seaborne commerce to become an important part of the Tampa Bay area’s economy but sharply threatened the bay and region’s ecology. From its small beginnings, the Port of Tampa has grown into the largest port in Florida and the 10th largest in the nation. It accommodates half of Florida’s cargo in the form of bulk, break bulk, roll-on/roll-off, refrigerated and container cargo. It is the site of a ship repair and building industry, along with recently expanded cruise facilities.
The Port of Manatee, with more refrigerated dockside space than any other Gulf of Mexico port, is the closest of the three Tampa Bay deepwater ports to the Panama Canal. It is also one of the state’s busiest, ranking fifth among Florida’s fourteen seaports in total annual cargo tonnage. The Port of St. Petersburg is home to a U.S. Coast Guard station. The smallest of Florida’s ports, it operates as a landlord port managed by the city of St. Petersburg.
Bridges that cross Tampa Bay
- Sunshine Skyway Bridge: spans the mouth of Tampa Bay from Bradenton on the south to St. Petersburg on the north. Part of I-275
- Gandy Bridge: spans Old Tampa Bay from Tampa on the east to St. Petersburg on the west. First road bridge to link Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
- Howard Frankland Bridge: spans middle of Old Tampa Bay from Tampa on the east to St. Pete on the west. Part of I-275
- Courtney Campbell Causeway: spans northern Old Tampa Bay from Tampa on the east to Clearwater on the west.
- Bayside Bridge: runs roughly parallel to the western shore of Old Tampa Bay from Largo on the south to Clearwater on the north
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