Exhibit Gallery

Living Estuary Exhibit

Did you know: Florida has 3 main types of mangroves: the red, black, and white!

Why are estuaries nicknamed the “nursery of the sea”?

Estuaries are nicknamed the “nursery of the sea” because the habitats making up our particular estuary are prime breeding grounds, providing great places for developing fish and other marine life to hide and eat. This is especially true for our red mangroves.

  • As you can see, they have dense roots that are perfect for fish to hide in until maturity. It is said that around 90% of commercial fishery species in south Florida use mangroves during a part of their life cycle. Moving above the surface, many snakes, spiders, and crabs find food among the raised roots. And then moving into the canopy, many essential birds to our ecosystem make their nests here.
  • The red mangrove is the most well-known type and what you see represented in our estuary tank. Red mangroves are the species that grows the closest to the water and are even known to be island builders out in the bay! They are known for their “prop and drop” roots. They can drop their roots down below the water’s surface and prop themselves up, making them sturdier against aggressive waves and particularly gusty winds.
  • Behind the red mangroves, in the muddier grounds, you would find black mangroves. They have “snorkel” roots, also known as pneumatophores, that help the plant with gas exchange and support. More inland, on sturdier grounds, you would find the white mangroves.

Fun Fact: Mangrovews are highly adaptive, salt-tolerant plants!

Spin Browser

Did you know: the majority of St. Petersburg was developed through dredged land?

What does dredging mean?

Dredging is the process in which sand is pumped from the sea floor to provide man-made land for development.

  • Dredging can also be used to create deeper channels for boats/ships to travel through
  • The dredging of Tampa Bay had severe negative impacts on our local environment such as the destruction of our seagrass beds, oyster reefs, and other essential habitats. By the 1960s, Tampa Bay faced such a huge pollution issue that thousands of marine mammals, essential birds, and other wildlife had been killled.
  • Tampa Bay Watch is an environmental non-profit founded in 1993 by Peter Clark to perform various habitat restoration work in Tampa Bay!

Fun Fact: The majority of the restoration work performed by Tampa Bay Watch is done by the hands of thousands of volunteers!

Life in a Water Drop

Did you know: The majority of marine life start as Plankton!

What is plankton?

Plankton is defined as any organism, plant or animal, that drift in our ocean or “Go with the Flow.” Many, although not all of them, are microscopic.

  • We have two main types of plankton: phytoplankton are our plant-like plankton and zooplankton are our animal-like plankton.
  • Some plankton stay microscopic their whole lives while others, like oysters or crabs, grow to be organisms that no longer drift in our ocean currents.
  • At our first microscoe you can find familiar organisms like the sea star. While at the second, you can find our live samples we collect during our educational program, Pier into Plankton!

Fun Fact: Jellyfish are considered to be plankton because they float with the flow of the current!

One Second Wave

Did you know: Plastic is the most common type of marine debris.

What is marine debris?

Marine debris is man-made trash that is washed into the bay or open water.

  • This sculpture represents the 1,500 plastic bottles disposed of every second in the USA.
  • Plastic eventually breaks down into Microplastics- plastics 5mm or smaller (about the size of your pinky nail) which is often too small for us to pick up. Our marine life often ingests these plastics and microplastics which we then ingest when we eat that marine life. Therefore, the health of our animals, estuary, and us are at risk.
  • Tampa Bay Watch conducts beach clean-ups and monofilament collection (fishing line) as some of our many restoration projects!

Fun Fact: You can help reduce the waste of plastic by integrating reusable items into your daily life, such as reusable water bottles, shopping bags, utensils, and Tupperware!

One Planet One Ocean

Did you know: Tampa Bay is the largest estuary in Florida!

What is an Estuary?

An estuary is a semi-enclosed area where fresh water meets salt water!

  • This is known as brackish water
  • Development along estuary shoreline has caused negative impacts such as habitat destruction, marine debris, dredging, and run-off of harmful chemicals.
  • This is why agencies and private volunteer organizations, such as Tampa Bay Watch, have been established to do all we can to create a positive effect on our estuary’s health.

Fun Fact: Around 70% of our Earth’s water is from our oceans! While our oceans have been given different names, they are still one connected body of water.

Laser Cut Map of the Tampa Bay Estuary


Did you know: mangroves, seagrass beds, oyster reefs, and salt water marsh are the unique habitats to Tampa Bay’s estuary?

Can you find hte 4 main rivers that feed Tampa Bay’s estuary? Their names are the Manatee, Little Manatee, Alafia, and Hilsborough

  • This critically detailed, birchwood map is 7 feet tall and accurately displays every road adn point depth in Tampa Bay!
  • MacDill AFB is our first and longest ongoing site for our habitat restoration and living shoreline.

Fun Fact: It took cartographer Dean Forss 4 months to create this beautiful laser cut map!!

Living Shoreline

Did you know: Our estuary is made up of 4 main habitats: Mangroves, Salt Marshes, Seagrass, and Oyster Reefs. Together, those habitats form what is known as a living shoreline.

What is a living shoreline?

A living shoreline acts as an important barrier protecting our coastline by absorbing wave energy which ultimately reduces erosion, filters our water, and supports the growth of marine life.

  • When you press the button, you see the house with the protection of a living shoreline is not affected by the wave. These habitats break down and buffer the incoming wave energy whereas a seawall simploy bounces the energy back out into the bay, tearing away sediment in the process.
  • Salt marshes have a unique interlocked web-like root system that catches and collects sediment, keeping it in place and therefore actually rebuilding the shoreline.
  • 30 feet of salt marsh buffer reduces low to moderate wave energy by over 50%!

Fun Fact: The dense root system of our mangroves and thickness of our salt marsh acts as a net to catch larger trash, like bottles and bags, from washing into open water.

Seahorse Aquarium

Did you know: Seahorses are important to Tampa Bay Watch because they are an indicator species!

What does an indicator species mean

An indicator species means their existence alone an indicate the condition of our water quality and their seagrass bed habitat.

  • Seahorses are monogamous and mate for life. We actually have a bonded pair in our tank. When they bond, they will actually chane their colors to match each other. Every morning they will do a ceremonial dance to reinforce their bond. When it is time for them to mate, the male seahorse will carry the babies until it is time to deliver in 21 days.
  • Tampa Bay Estuary is a wonderful comeback story. Currently seagrasses cover around 41,655 acres of bay bottom- the highest amount of seagrass documented since the 1950s. These healty seagrass beds are crucial for the survival of organisms like the seahorse. Tampa Bay Watch participates in successful transplanting projects and seagrass monitoring.
  • Seahorses live their entire 2-4 year lifespan in the same 3 foot radius of seagrass! They use their monkey-like tails to grab onto blades of grass and each other. They do not have teeth or true stomachs so they are constantly slurping up food.

Fun Fact: Due to Tampa Bay Watch’s efforts with cleaning the water quality through our ORBs and our success with restoring the seagrass beds, there are more seahorses now in the bay area than there were 10 years ago!

Oysters at Work

Did you know: Oysters are crucial to bettering our water quality! Oysters are a type of ecosystem engineer that filters the pollution from the water and provides an essential habitat for our fish.

What are oysters?

Oysters are filter feeders who are a type of bivalve mollusk, meaning they are an animal with two connecting shells.

  • Oysters siphon water into their bodies and use the mucus on their gills to capture their food like small planktonic plants and animals which is then brought to their mouth to eat. While filter feeding they also can ingest other things in the bay like sediment or other impurities polluting the water. They then push out clean, filtered water back into the bay.
  • Because of this process, Tampa Bay Watch’s largest and most well-known project is oyster restoration- through both Oyster Reef Balls (ORBs) and mesh bags.
  • ORBs are concrete structures that provide a sturdy structure for oysters to attach themselves to and eventually create an oyster reef.
  • Oyster reefs act like an underwater city, providing an essential habitat for local fish to breed, hunt, and hide. Oyster reefs also provide protection to our coastline and work in tandem with other local habitats to create a living shoreline.

Fun Fact: One adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water in one day! That’s roughly the size of a bathtub!

Touch Tank

Did you know: All the animals living at the Discovery Center are local marine life you can find in the surrounding Florida waters!

What is a crab molt?

A crab molt is the shedding of the exoskeleton and for a short time afterward, the crab is unable to moveuntil it regains muscle control and the new exoskeleton hardens up.

  • Seastars are carnivorous and eat their food by externally wrapping hteir stomachs around their food and digesting it outside of their bodies. Variegated sea urchins can be many colors: purple, green, and white. Both seastars and sea urchins have tentacle looking arms called tubed feet with little suction cups on the end, allowing them to walk or attach themselves to walls.
  • Hermit crabs are born without a shell and have to frequently find a new home as they molt and grow bigger. Snails on the other hand have an attached shell that grows with them. Like turtles, a snail’s shell is a part of it’s body, therefore, it can feel you touching it.
  • Can you find all the sponge crabs? Sponge crabs are a type of decorator crab, meaning the Velcro like hairs on their exoskeleton allow them to attach materials in their habitat to their shells allowing them to be camouflaged. Horseshoe crabs are technically a part of the arachnid family. The copper in their blood makes it blue and crucial to the medical field in developing vaccines.

Fun Fact: You can tell the gender of a crab by identifying if they have an empire state building shape (male) on their bellies or more of a rounded pouch shape (female)!

Lionfish Aquarium

Did you know: Lionfish are an extremely invasive species taking over the surrounding Florida waters all the way up the east coast!

What is an invasive species?

An invasive species is an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native.

  • They originate from the Indo-pacific and came over about 25 years ago, most likely from the aquarium trade. Since they are not a part of our native food chain, they have no natural predators. This is problematic since they can produce around 30,000 eggs every four days- up to around 2 million eggs per year. Lionfish reach maturity in about a year.
  • They eat 90 different species of botom feeder fish and invertebrates. The problem with eating such large quantities of bottom feeder fish is that those fish have a job. They eat all the algae from the rocky fish habitats and keep them sustainable. Plus, they are a part of our natural food chain. When these native fish are eaten the fragile balance of our ecosystem is thrown off. Additionally, with lionfish utilizing htese natural homes and food sources that our local fish depend on, we find them losing their homes and even starving.
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife has a great saying, “If you can’t beat them, eat them” so we recommend people catch them and eat them. Here at the Discovery Center, we hold lionfish dissections twice a week. You can dissect these guys knowing you are helping your local environment. One of the cool things we do in the dissections is study the stomach contents. We record the data and send it to researchers who are looking closely at what is being affected by the ever destructive lionfish.

Fun Fact: Lionfish have 18 venomous spines capable of penetrating human skin and delivering a painful (not fatal) sting!

Interactive Sandbox: Life in the Bay

Did you know: Having a biodiverse ecosystem makes organisms and systems more resilient to changes.

What is Biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem.

  • Our sandbox projects a topographical map mimicking our coastlines and animals who live there.
  • Pile the sand high and create an island or dig deep and find some interesting creatures!
  • The average depth of the Tampa Bay estuary is around 11 feet

Fun Fact: 80% of marine life use estuaries at some point in their life, whether it’s Tampa Bay or other estuaries.

Wave Tank

There are alternatives to seawalls — options that protect property while creating new habitats for fish and wildlife. One such alternative, a living shoreline, can be an ideal solution. Plants or other natural materials — like small rocks or shells — provide a more natural method to absorb wave energy, help control erosion, and create a better home for fish, shorebirds, and other marine animals. Tampa Bay Watch’s oyster reef installations and native plantings create living shorelines that return the areas to their  natural states. Our interactive “Wave Tank” demonstrates how a wave that dissipates over a natural shoreline has a less damaging effect than when hitting a seawall.

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