Tampa Bay

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This article is about the body of water. For the demographic region, see Tampa Bay Area. For the city, see Tampa, Florida. For other possible uses, see Tampa (disambiguation).
Tampa Bay from a NASA satellite

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.[1]

"Tampa Bay" is not the name of any municipality. This misconception may stem 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.[2]


Tampa Bay watershed from USGS


Approximately 6,000 years ago, Tampa Bay formed as a brackish drowned river valley type[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]


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.[6] 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[7] 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).[8]

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.[9]

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[8][10]) 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.[8]

Human habitation[edit]

Earliest known detailed map of Tampa Bay, by Don Francisco Maria Celi of the Spanish Royal Fleet, 1757. Map is oriented with east at the top. Pinellas peninsula is at bottom, Tampa peninsula in middle, Hillsborough River shown extending into the interior at top left

Early inhabitants[edit]

Humans have lived in Florida for millennia, at least 14,000 years. Due to worldwide glaciation, sea levels were much lower at the time, and Florida's peninsula extended almost 60 miles west of today's coastline. Paleo-Indian sites have been found near rivers and lakes in northern Florida, leading to speculation that these first Floridians also lived on Tampa Bay when it was still a freshwater lake.[11] Evidence of human habitation from this early period has been found at the Harney Flats site, which is approximately 10 miles east of the current location of Tampa's downtown waterfront.[12]

The earliest evidence of human habitation directly on the shores of Tampa Bay comes from the Manasota culture, a variant of the Weeden Island culture, who lived in the area beginning around 5,000 - 6,000 years ago, after sea levels had risen to near modern levels and the bay was connected to the Gulf of Mexico.[13] This culture, which relied almost exclusively on the bay for food and other resources, was in turn replaced by the similar Safety Harbor culture by approximately 800 AD.

European exploration[edit]

The Safety Harbor culture was dominant in the area at the time of first contact with Europeans in the mid-1500s. The Tocobaga, who built their principal town near today's Safety Harbor in the northwest corner of Old Tampa Bay, are the most documented group from that era because they had the most interactions with Spanish explorers. However, there were many other coastal villages organized into various small chiefdoms all around the bay.[14]

Not finding gold or silver in the vicinity and unable to covert the native inhabitants to Christianity, the Spanish did not remain in the Tampa Bay area for long. However, diseases they introduced decimated the native population over the ensuing decades,[15] leading to the near-total collapse of every established culture across peninsular Florida. Between this depopulation and the indifference of its colonial owners, the Tampa Bay region would be virtually uninhabited for almost 200 years.

Tampa Bay was given different names by early mapmakers. Spanish maps dated from 1584 identifies Tampa Bay as Baya de Spirito Santo ("Bay of the Holy Spirit").[16] A map dated 1695 identifies the area as Bahia Tampa.[17] Later maps dated 1794[18] and 1800[19] show the bay divided with three different names, Tampa Bay west of the Interbay peninsula and Hillsboro Bay on the east with an overall name of Bay of Spiritu Santo.

United States control[edit]

The United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1819. The name Spirito Santo seems to have disappeared from maps of the region in favor of "Tampa Bay" (sometimes divided into Tampa and Hillsboro Bays) soon after the US established Fort Brooke at the mouth of the Hillsborough River in 1824.[20]

For the next 100 years, many new communities were founded around the bay. Fort Brooke begat Tampa on the northeast shore, Fort Harrison (a minor military outpost on Florida's west coast) begat Clearwater, the trading post of "Braden's Town" developed into Bradenton on the south, and St. Petersburg grew quickly after its founding in the late 19th century, on the western bay shore opposite Tampa. By 2010, the Tampa Bay Area was home to over 4 million residents.

Environmental decline and recovery[edit]

Tampa Bay was once teeming with fish and wildlife. People of the Safety Harbor culture lived almost entirely from mullet, shellfish, sea turtles, manatees, crabs, and other bounties harvested from the sea. As late as the early 20th century, visitors still reported huge schools of mullet swimming across the bay in such numbers that they "impeded the passage of boats."[21]

The rapid growth of surrounding communities during the 20th century caused serious damage to the bay's natural environment. Heavy harvesting of fish and other sea life, constant dredging of shipping channels, and the clearing of mangroves for shoreline development were important factors.[22] Most damaging was the discharge of waste water and other pollutants into the bay, which drastically degraded water quality.[23] By the 1970s, the water was so murky that sunlight could not reach the shallow bottom, sea grass coverage (which is vital to marine life) had decreased by more than 80%, many previously common species had become scarce, and bay beaches were regularly closed due to unsafe levels of bacteria and pollutants.[23]

Beginning in the early 1980s after federal and state legislation to improve water quality, authorities installed improved water treatment plants and tightened regulation of industrial discharge, leading to slow but steady improvement in water quality and general ecological health.[24] By 2010, measures of sea grass coverage, water clarity, and biodiversity had improved to levels last seen in the 1950s.[25]


The Sunshine Skyway from its southern approach. St. Petersburg is in the distance.

In Tampa's early days, roads across central Florida were poor or non-existent and railroads did not yet extend down the Florida peninsula. The most common means of transportation to and from the area was by sea, usually via Tampa's small port on Tampa Bay. By the late 19th century, however, the deeper drafts of newer vessels meant that much of naturally shallow Tampa Bay was not navigable for commercial shipping. Henry B. Plant's railroad line reached the area in 1886 and ran across the Interbay Peninsula to Old Tampa Bay, where he built the town of Port Tampa. Plant's connections with the United States Army Corps of Engineers helped him to convince the U.S. Congress to authorize the first dredging operation in Tampa Bay, which created a shipping channel to Port Tampa and enabled Plant to expand his steamship line.[26]

In 1917, the Corps of Engineers dredged another channel from the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Port of Tampa, instantly making the city an important shipping center. Now known as the Port of Tampa Bay, it 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 ship facilities.[27]

Port Manatee, located on the southern shore of Tampa Bay, has more refrigerated dockside space than any other Gulf of Mexico port. It is also one of the state's busiest, ranking fifth among Florida's fourteen seaports in total annual cargo tonnage.[28] The Port of St. Petersburg is home to a U.S. Coast Guard station. The smallest of Florida's ports, it caters mainly to smaller private vessels and is managed by the city of St. Petersburg.[29]

The Corp of Engineers currently maintains more than 80 miles of deep-water channels in Tampa Bay up to a depth of 47 feet. These must be continuously re-dredged and deepened due to the sandy nature of the bay bottom. While dredging has enabled seaborne commerce to become an important part of the Tampa Bay area's economy, it has also damaged the bay's ecology. More care has been taken in recent decades to lessen the environmental impact of dredging.[30] Dredged material has also been used to create several fill islands on the eastern side of Tampa Bay. These areas have been designated as "sanctuary islands" off limits to boaters, and they have become important nesting sites for several species of seabirds[31]

Bridges that cross Tampa Bay[edit]

See also[edit]


Cover to sheet music for "Way Down On Tampa Bay" by A. Seymour Brown and Egbert Van Alstyne, 1914
  1. ^ "Tampa Bay Watershed - Hillsborough River, Alafia River, Manatee River - Florida's Water: Ours to Protect". Protectingourwater.org. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  2. ^ Craig Pittman. "Media found the Rays, lost the 'Bay' - St. Petersburg Times". Tampabay.com. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  3. ^ Kunneke, J.T., and T.F. Palik, 1984. "Tampa Bay environmental atlas", U.S. Fish Wildl. Serv. Biol. Rep. 85(15), page 3. Retrieved January 12, 2010.
  4. ^ Holocene and Pleistocene Marine and Non-marine Sediment from Tampa Bay, Florida
  5. ^ St. Petersburg Times Depths detail bay's beginnings
  6. ^ GulfBase: Tampa Bay and Keys
  7. ^ Map of the Tampa Bay Watershed
  8. ^ a b c "Tampa Bay Estuary Program", Official Website
  9. ^ "Can manatees survive without warm waters from power plants?", Tampa Tribune (tbo.com), Jan. 7, 2011.
  10. ^ "Dredging and Dredged Material Management", Tampa Bay Estuary Program
  11. ^ http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/vertpaleo/aucilla11_1/milanich.htm
  12. ^ http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00020/27j
  13. ^ "Manasota". Co.pinellas.fl.us. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  14. ^ "Tocobaga Indians of Tampa Bay". Fcit.usf.edu. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  15. ^ Hann, John H. (2003). Indians of Central and South Florida: 1513-1763. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2645-8
  16. ^ "University of Georgia Libraries, Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library: 1584 map of La Florida". Retrieved April 27, 2009. 
  17. ^ "University of Georgia Libraries, Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library: 1695 Spanish Map". Retrieved April 27, 2009. 
  18. ^ "Historical Map Archive: The Peninsula and Gulf of Florida, or New Bahama Channel, with the Bahama Islands". Retrieved April 27, 2009. 
  19. ^ "University of Georgia Libraries, Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library: An exact map of North and South Carolina & Georgia, with East and West Florida". Retrieved April 27, 2009. 
  20. ^ "Historical Map Archive: 1933 Map of Florida by A. Finley, Philadelphia". Retrieved April 27, 2009. 
  21. ^ http://www.tampabay.wateratlas.usf.edu/upload/documents/OldTampaBaylit.pdf
  22. ^ [1][dead link]
  23. ^ a b http://www.tampabay.wateratlas.usf.edu/upload/documents/Seagrass%20Meadows%20of%20Tampa%20Bay%20-%20A%20Review.pdf
  24. ^ Ten Communities: Profiles in Environmental Progress
  25. ^ "Tampa Bay sea grasses, a leading indicator of water health, hit 60-year high", St. Petersburg Times
  26. ^ "Corps, Port Consider Channel Widening Options". Baysoundings.com. Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  27. ^ "About the Tampa Port Authority". Retrieved 6 March 2013. 
  28. ^ http://www.portmanatee.com/About-Us/Port-Facts
  29. ^ http://www.stpete.org/parks_and_recreation/marina/the_port.php
  30. ^ http://www.tbep.org/pdfs/ctc/Dredging-and-Dredged-Material-Management.pdf
  31. ^ http://fl.audubon.org/sanctuary-islands

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 27°45′45″N 82°32′45″W / 27.76250°N 82.54583°W / 27.76250; -82.54583