TAMPA, Florida -- When you take in the beauty of Tampa Bay today, it's hard to believe that several decades ago, the beloved body of water was declared dead, a poster child of the consequences of unbridled pollution.
That was in the 1970s. Today, it's experiencing a remarkable comeback thanks to the efforts of Tampa Bay Watch, established to resurrect the "dead bay."
This nonprofit environmental organization's mission is to protect local marine life and keep pollution levels down.
And now, you can see their work -- and experience the fruits of their labor -- first hand by visiting the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center.
CEO Dwayne Virgint describes the progress the organization has made over the past 29 years.
"With a lot of support from the community, we've helped 'turn the tide' literally, so we're starting to see great improvement here at Tampa Bay. We're seeing seagrass come back, and we're seeing marine life come back to levels back towards the 1950s," he said.
The bay is actually an estuary, which means it's a nursery ground for the Gulf of Mexico.
Savannah Gandee, a marine biologist and Tampa Bay Watch's lead environmental educator, said the bay cradles breathtaking biodiversity.
"There's easily probably over 200 animals that would live above and below the water's surface," she said.
Inside the center, the center offers many exhibits to explore, including a touch tank where you can get a true closeup look and physically handle horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, whelks and ghost shrimp. In the habitat tanks, you'll find a variety of species, but the crowd favorite tends to be the terrapins, which are native to the estuary.
To experience the bay, visitors can sail out on a 47-foot catamaran for an educational eco-tour, where they can discover the different species that live above and below the water's surface.
The tours frequently come across dolphins and manatees, and have a program where they identify and study the dolphins because they are so localized to the inshore waters of Florida.
"We want them to leave with a better sense of Tampa Bay and the estuary and what they can take home so they can become stewards of their local environments," Virgint said.