Sailing Tampa Bay – One of Florida’s Most Productive Natural Habitats
One of the most profound pleasures of sailing on beautiful Tampa Bay is the abundance of sea life we encounter. Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest estuary – an enclosed body of coastal waters with one or more rivers flowing into it, opening to the sea. Four rivers empty into our bay, the Hillsborough River, at Tampa, the Alafia, near Gibsonton, the Little Manatee, near Ruskin, and the Manatee River at Bradenton.
Estuaries are a transition zone between river and open ocean environments and are subject to both marine influences, such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water and river influences, such as flows of fresh water and sediments. This combination of both seawater and fresh water provide high levels of nutrients, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world. Thanks to long term improvements in environmentally friendly practices, Tampa Bay water quality is at decades-high levels.
Tampa Bay is Teaming with Life
Over 500 resident dolphins call Tampa Bay home 12-months of the year, according to Florida Aquarium researchers. Dolphins visit Lionheart on most every sail, often riding the sailboat’s bow waves and side wakes, sometimes only a couple feet away. During these encounters you can look directly into their eyes and feel the very real presence of “someone” looking back at you with equal curiosity – an awesome experience every time! The forceful sound of their exhaling breath punctuates the air and can be startling when you’re not expecting them. The dolphins seem clearly to swim with the boat for the mere fun of it.
On other occasions, the dolphins can be seen feeding on schools of fish. While on their dinner forays, the dolphins don’t pay much attention to the boat, but their swimming pattern makes observations and photo ops much longer. The dolphins leap through the waves chasing their prey and thus remain visible for a more extended time.
Most Diverse Colonies in the Continental United States
Pelicans and cormorants put on a predictable show on virtually every sailing tour as they forage for dinner. And scores of other sea birds become a welcome part of the Tampa Bay ecosystem and a delightful part of our sailing cruises. Every year, up to 18,000 nesting pairs of nearly 20 bird species nest in various spoil islands located within Tampa Bay. The spoil islands, now tree-covered, were formed from the sand and mud deposited when the Tampa shipping channel was dredged in the late 1920’s. Bird Island, near the mouth of the Alafia River, is the top-nesting site in Florida for roseate spoonbills and is one of the most diverse bird colonies in the continental United States. Sunset sailing tours are often the most ideal times to get up-and-personal with the rich diversity of sea life of Tampa waters.
Mermaids from the Deep
But no matter how many times we sail these beautiful waters, it is impossible to become complacent. An unexpected twist seems always just around the next wave. On a sailing tour last week near sunset, Lionheart had a very close encounter with a friendly manatee. The manatee didn’t appear at all disturbed by our presence and remained nearby for over 15 minutes before disappearing into the depths. Sailboats have an extraordinary advantage when encountering marine life because of their natural quietness. When aboard a sailboat, your senses are much more attuned to the sea environment than when barging through the waves under power. Your sense of hearing, smell, and even sight is enhanced when moving with the elements rather than fighting them. Most important, sailing vessels do not harm these gentle creatures with prop strikes.
If you are fortunate enough to share some space with any of these magnificent marine animals, please be sure not to feed them or disturb their normal behavior (it’s also against the law). As with all wild creatures, whether on land or in the sea, frequent encounters with mankind often turn out badly for them. Observe and respect them. Enjoy them. But let them do their thing and appreciate the privilege of their company.
Come Join an Olde World Sailing Line Tampa Bay Sailing Tour
See Florida and the Tampa Bay Area as you’ve never experienced it before – from the decks of an ocean-going sailing yacht. Lionheart sails daily from the Tampa Convention Center Docks. Book your expedition here.