See the underwater wonderland in Tampa Bay with just a mask and snorkel

Photos by Nanette O’Hara

By Nanette O’Hara

Tampa Bay may not have the razzle-dazzle brilliance of a Caribbean coral reef, but plenty of aquatic treasures can be found beneath its surface. Let’s don a virtual mask and snorkel and take a look.

Seagrasses are a signature habitat, and a living symbol of the bay’s recovery. An acre of seagrasses can support 40,000 fish and 50 million invertebrates. Today, more than 41,000 acres of seagrass cover shallow areas of the bay bottom – an increase of more than 20,000 acres since 1982.

Three major species flourish in the bay: Shoal grass (Halodule wrightii), turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) and Manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme). Generally, shoal grass is found closest to shore, in the intertidal zone that can be completely exposed during low tides. Shoal grass and manatee grass are usually not far away, especially in the lower bay, and different species often are mixed together.

Shoal grass is a stumpy, narrow-bladed grass, shorter than the ribbon-like turtle grass and the spaghetti-like manatee grass.

Peering into the grasses, you may see hermit crabs, carrying their spiral-shell homes on their backs, along with spider crabs, sea stars, sponges, sea urchins, and an array of small colorful fish darting by. You are certain to spy the ubiquitous and curious pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides), in constant motion through the grasses, or a pudgy pufferfish, and perhaps a spotted seatrout. Seen underwater, the colorful stripes, spots and patches of these fish are much more vivid, even iridescent.

If you’re very lucky, you may spy a bay scallop. It will certainly see you, with its many electric-blue eyes lining the outer rim of its shell. During high tides, scallops move up the seagrass blades to feed – it’s a treat to see one with its shell wide open, exposing a curtain of hairlike cilia through which it filters phytoplankton from the water. At low tides, scallops move down the grasses to hide.  Look, but don’t take these tasty bivalves – their sustainability in Tampa Bay is still uncertain.

The common names “turtle grass” and “manatee grass” are not accidents. Seagrasses are the primary food for both green sea turtles and manatees – the most charismatic and beloved bay residents you’re likely to spot if you snorkel quietly through waters 3-6 feet deep.

Sandy bottom areas may appear lifeless, but are far from it.  This is the home of sand dollars, clams, and the odd khaki-colored flounder nestled in the sand, with only eyes and mouth visible. The Southern Flounder found in Tampa Bay is one of the “left-eye flounders,” so called because the left side is where the eyes are always located.  These fascinating flatfish swim on their sides close to the bottom, then hunker down in the sand, waiting for an unsuspecting fish or shrimp to venture by.

You may also encounter stingrays here, skimming the bottom searching for food or buried in the sand, much like flounder. Silvery pompano also patrol the sand flats.

Ready to immerse yourself in the magical underwater world of Tampa Bay for real? Here are some great places to snorkel. Remember to stay shallow, pay attention to your surroundings, and use a personal dive flag so boaters know you’re there:

  • Fort De Soto Park

Check out the seagrass flats off the Arrowhead Picnic Area, or the Gulf waters off East Beach. No need for a boat or kayak; just wade in!

  • Egmont Key State Park

Take the Snorkeling Cruise offered by Hubbard’s out of Fort De Soto and explore sunken remnants of Fort Dade or spectacular seagrasses on this secluded island at the mouth of Tampa Bay. https://hubbardsmarina.com/egmont-key-ferry-cruise/

  • Shell Key Preserve

Arrive by kayak, or take the Shell Key Shuttle (http://shellkeyshuttle.com/index.htm) to experience sandy white beaches and lush seagrasses. Shell Key is a nature preserve with a priority on protecting seabirds and other wildlife; make sure to obey posted signs. This island can get quit crowded on summer weekends.

  • Picnic Island Park

This large park in South Tampa has a designated swimming area with a nice sand bottom. Seagrass beds nearby offer an introduction to both habitats.

  • Caladesi Island State Park

Snorkel the pristine beaches of the Gulf side, also superb for shelling and general beachcombing, then hop over to the “back side” for beautiful grass flats.

All photos by Nanette O’Hara unless otherwise noted.

Originally published August 2017

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