Just a short hop from the shoreline is one of the most exciting and informative attractions at the St. Pete Pier – the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center. For those looking to visit the greater Tampa area, the Discovery Center offers visitors a hands-on learning experience about the preservation and recovery of the Tampa Bay estuary, which is the largest in Florida. Here are some of the top reasons why the Discovery Center is worth a visit any time of the year.
1. Nothing Beats a Fun and Educational Eco-Vessel Ride All aboard the M/V Discovery! The latest eco-tours at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center provide educational family-friendly tours as well as academic field trips. These tours explore Tampa Bay’s history and the marine life that can be found in and above the bay. The tour is just over an hour long and is not only filled with amazing views, but a great way to see and learn about the marine life the Tampa Bay area is famous for. The Discovery Center’s marine biologists onboard provide insights into the local waters and species while conducting scientific research. Aboard the M/V Discovery, guests can experience different activities first-hand, including a fisheries trawl and species identification, water quality sampling, dolphin and manatee identification, bird spotting, and visits to seagrass beds and mangrove shorelines. Proceeds from each tour supports the important environmental restoration work of Tampa Bay Watch. The eco-vessel runs all week long. For a full schedule, click here.
2. Experience Life in the Bay – Hands in the Touch Tank & Interactive Sandbox Inside the discovery center’s expansive glass walls, guests will find an array of interactive exhibits, live marine habitats and various educational programs. Visitors can participate in hands-on activities and touch some of the live species like starfish and sea urchin in the Touch Tank. Discovery Center experts are there nearby to explain what the different creatures are, how you can identify them, plus more. The touch tank displays several different estuarine species of organisms found in the local shallow waters.
3. Living Estuary Exhibit All the animals living at the Discovery Center are local marine life you can find in the surrounding Florida waters. Estuarine species live in waters connected to the ocean, such as bays, and can include species such as seahorses, sharks, rays, a diversity of fish and even dolphins.
Located in the center of the Discovery Center is an 1,800-gallon marine estuary habitat featuring a large mangrove tree as its centerpiece. The exhibit mirrors the estuary, where mangrove roots serve as nurseries and safe havens for a variety of thriving marine species and showcases many of the species found in Tampa Bay including tarpon, red fish, snook, hogfish, and trunkfish.
4. Oysters at Work Oysters are crucial to bettering water quality. One adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day – that’s roughly the size of a bathtub! At the Discovery Center, visitors can witness oysters at work and see how they act as a natural ecosystem engineer that filters the pollution from the water and provides cleaner, filtered water to provide an essential living habitat for marine life.
Oysters are a type of bivalve mollusk, meaning they are an animal with two connecting shells. They siphon water into their bodies and use the mucus on their gills to capture food-like small planktonic plants and animals which is then brought to their mouth to eat. While oysters are filter feeding, they also can ingest other things from the bay like sediment or other impurities polluting the water. They then push out clean, filtered water back into the bay.
Because of this natural process, Tampa Bay Watch’s largest and most well-known project is oyster restoration. It is through Oyster Reef Balls (ORBs) and mesh bags that allow Tampa Bay Watch to recreate oyster reefs to act like an underwater city, providing an essential habitat for local fish to breed, hunt, and hide. ORBs are concrete structures that provide a sturdy structure for oysters to attach themselves to and eventually create an oyster reef. Oyster reefs also provide protection to the coastline and work in tandem with other local habitats to create a living shoreline.
5. One Second Wave Plastic is the most common type of marine debris. Marine debris is man-made trash that is washed into the bay or open water. The One Second Wave sculpture, located at the entrance to the Discovery Center, is a visual representation of the 1,500 plastic bottles that are disposed of every second in the United States.
Because plastic eventually breaks down into microplastics, which is often too small for humans to pick up, marine life often ingests these plastics and microplastics which are then ingested by humans putting the health of animals, estuaries, and all of us at risk.
Tampa Bay Watch conducts beach clean-ups and monofilament collection (fishing line) as some of its many restoration projects. It also encourages people to do their part to reduce plastic waste by integrating reusable items into your daily life, such as reusable water bottles, shopping bags, utensils, and Tupperware.