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Amid bars and market, St. Pete Pier schools guests on Tampa Bay ecosystem

Two months in, how are things going at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center?

Midway down the new St. Pete Pier sits the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center, a classroom-museum-aquarium mashup dedicated to the local environment.

The Discovery Center offers a highly visible outpost for the nonprofit, headquartered on Tierra Verde and best known for its work planting sea grasses and other restoration projects around Tampa Bay.

Two months after the pier’s opening, the Tampa Bay Times caught up with Dwayne Virgint, executive director of the Discovery Center. He said Tampa Bay Watch is on target for a goal of about 100,000 visitors in the first year. Admission is $5 for most adults and $3 for children. Toddlers get in for free.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Dwayne Virgint, executive director at the new Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier, stands near a lionfish tank Wednesday.
Dwayne Virgint, executive director at the new Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier, stands near a lionfish tank Wednesday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

You opened in a pandemic. What has that been like?

We had concerns like everybody else did: Would people come out and if they did come out would they follow the guidelines? The fact of the matter is we’ve been doing very well so far. Our attendance and traffic patterns have been in line with our expectations. People have really turned out despite the concerns about the pandemic. People are wearing face masks, and they’re doing the social distancing in a good way.

What does the Discovery Center add that Tampa Bay Watch didn’t have before?

Most importantly, we have a public face and a public profile by this location. Surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t know about us. If you’re in southern Pinellas, you’re familiar with us to an extent, that we’ve been around for 27 years. And now we have some place where you’re welcome seven days a week to come in and not just learn about us but learn about Tampa Bay and the recovery of the bay and the ecosystem. The highlights are some key exhibits like “Life in the Bay,” which is an interactive, virtual sandbox that provides adults and children the opportunity to play in the sand while they learn about topography of different species. We have the estuary habitat, which is an 1,800-gallon aquarium with a large mangrove with exposed roots that provides a peek into the life that exists within the Tampa Bay estuary and we also have “One Second Wave of Plastic,” which is a sculpture made up of 1,500 water bottles, which demonstrates how many of these items we use in one second in the United States. It’s really startling to realize how much plastic we use and so much of that ends up back in the waters, broken into microplastics that harm and kill marine life.

An aquarium at Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier features fish found among the roots of mangroves.
An aquarium at Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier features fish found among the roots of mangroves. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

What is your personal favorite exhibit?

I have to say the estuary habitat. I’m a sucker for aquariums. I love seeing the live species. And what’s really cool is being able to see them move around in what would be their native environments. It’s hard for us as snorkelers and divers to get in that close to the mangroves. Usually it’s a little bit more silty when you do that, and it’s harder to see. Here basically you get to see what it would be like, just kind of a sneak peek into looking at a day in the life of some of these different species.

What do the crowds seem to gravitate to so far?

The ones that we find people really going for are the oysters at work, which is a tank that basically shows how oysters naturally clean water. One oyster cleans up 50 gallons of seawater a day. So they are just a natural way to keep the bay clean. We also of course have people that just love — kids and adults — who love our touch tank.

Don Ottinger, a volunteer at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier, points out some of the different kinds of species found in Tampa Bay, in front of a special tank where visitors can touch creatures like sea stars, urchins and horseshoe crabs.
Don Ottinger, a volunteer at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier, points out some of the different kinds of species found in Tampa Bay, in front of a special tank where visitors can touch creatures like sea stars, urchins and horseshoe crabs. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Who is the Discovery Center’s intended audience? Locals? Tourists? Kids? Adults?

Basically, all of the above: local residents and tourists, young and old. For locals, coming through the Discovery Center helps remind them what has happened in the past, and what could happen again if we’re not careful with developments in the area. For the tourist, it provides a model of sustainability for potentially their local environments, but importantly a better appreciation of why Tampa Bay and the estuary is so unique.

What do you hope people come away with when they walk out of the Discovery Center?

So much of it is for them to learn to become stewards of their own environment, to become more aware, to be engaged and understand that if they do that there’s a better chance of restoration (and) recovery locally, and then wherever they happen to be visiting from. If we all take that step, basically the world’s ocean will stand a much better chance.

Dwayne Virgint, executive director at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier, stands by a wave sculpture made up of 1,500 plastic water bottles.
Dwayne Virgint, executive director at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier, stands by a wave sculpture made up of 1,500 plastic water bottles. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

You’re going to have a floating classroom. What’s that?

It was supported by the Spurlino Foundation. It is a 46-foot catamaran that will come online in the spring. We will take school tours out there and actually do trawls in the bay, so we can bring up some of the species for them to take a look at, up close and personal, some things that they don’t see below the water. ... We’ll also be doing basically tours of the bay. People can see some of the projects that we’ve worked on, some of the bird watching, of course dolphin (and) manatee watches and identification. We expect that to begin service on April 1 of 2021.

Some people might think of bars and restaurants when they imagine the pier. Do you find guests are surprised to see the Discovery Center?

People have come out with a certain expectation for what I’ll call edu-tainment, where they want to come out and learn something, and they want to be entertained in the process. There used to be an aquarium out there, so for some people they are wondering, ’Is this the new aquarium?’ And we do have aquatic exhibits. (There’s) nothing wrong with going out, having a great meal and enjoying a fine cocktail. Nothing at all. We all enjoy that. But this is something else that you get to take home with you at the end of the day.

A hermit crab shuffles along the bottom of a shallow tank at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier.
A hermit crab shuffles along the bottom of a shallow tank at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center on the St. Pete Pier. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

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