Tampa Bay is a large, natural harbor and estuary along the Gulf of Mexico on the west central coast of Florida, comprising Hillsborough Bay, Old Tampa Bay, Middle Tampa Bay, and Lower Tampa Bay. "Tampa Bay" is not the name of any municipality. This misconception probably stems from the names of several local professional sports franchises (including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Rays, and Tampa Bay Rowdies) which seek to draw support from the entire Tampa Bay Area, the hub of which is the city of Tampa, Florida.
Approximately 6,000 years ago, Tampa Bay formed as a brackish drowned river valley type estuary with a wide mouth connecting it to the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to that time, it was a large fresh water lake, possibly fed by the Floridan Aquifer through natural springs. Though the exact process of the lake-to-bay transformation is not completely understood, the leading theory is that rising seas levels following the last ice age coupled with the formation of a massive sink hole near the current mouth of the bay created a connection between the lake and the gulf.
In Tampa's early days, the easiest way to get to Fort Brooke was by boat. But by the late 19th century, the deeper drafts of newer vessels meant that much of naturally shallow Tampa Bay was not navigable by commercial shipping. When Henry B. Plant's railroad reached the area in 1885, he continued the line past Tampa and across the Interbay Peninsula, where he built the town of Port Tampa on Old Tampa Bay. He wanted to create a new port for his fleet of steamships. To alleviate the problem of the shallow bay, the US Army Corps of Engineers began dredging operations in the early 20th century. The Corp currently maintains more than 80 miles of deep-water channels in Tampa Bay; these must be continuously re-dredged and deepened due to the sandy nature of the bay bottom. Dredging has enabled seaborne commerce to become an important part of the Tampa Bay area's economy but sharply threatened the bay and region's ecology. From its small beginnings, the Port of Tampa has grown into the largest port in Florida and the 10th largest in the nation. It accommodates half of Florida's cargo in the form of bulk, break bulk, roll-on/roll-off, refrigerated and container cargo. It is the site of a ship repair and building industry, along with recently expanded cruise facilities. The Port of Manatee, with more refrigerated dockside space than any other Gulf of Mexico port, is the closest of the three Tampa Bay deepwater ports to the Panama Canal. It is also one of the state's busiest, ranking fifth among Florida's fourteen seaports in total annual cargo tonnage. The Port of St. Petersburg is home to a U.S. Coast Guard station. The smallest of Florida's ports, it operates as a landlord port managed by the city of St. Petersburg.