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Response of Florida Shelf Ecosystems to Climate Change

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Teacher Guide to Tampa Bay Fly-Through

A snapshot of the Tampa Bay Fly-Through video
A snapshot of the Tampa Bay Fly-Through video.

Florida Shelf Summary


Students will gain an understanding of the underlying physical structure, topography bathymetry, and shoreline in the Tampa Bay area. They will also be more familiar and oriented with natural and manmade features of the area. Students will practice map labeling, contour drawing, and perform unit conversions with a calculator.

Helps fulfill Grades 3-5 Sunshine State Standards.


Note: You will need to have the free Adobe Acrobat® Reader installed on your computer to view and print the PDF files.


This is a teacher-guided activity using a fly-though video of Tampa Bay to explore the terrain of the region. Students label geographic features and draw contour lines on their own maps. A teacher-guided discussion deals with watersheds, shorelines, shipping routes, and unit conversion. Below are two vocabulary lists to help guide the lesson.

Things and Places
  • City of Tampa
  • Your school location
  • St. Pete Beach
  • Bridges
  • ship channel
  • Hillsborough County
  • Ruskin
  • Pinellas County
  • Interbay Peninsula
  • Hillsborough Bay
  • Old Tampa Bay
  • Little Manatee River
  • Safety Harbor
  • Palm Harbor
  • Treasure Island
  • Fort de Soto
  • Campbell Causeway
  • Hillsborough River
  • island of St. Petersburg
  • Gulf of Mexico
  • Tampa Bay
Vocabulary Terms
  • bay
  • wetlands
  • mangroves
  • sea grass
  • bayou
  • estuary
  • bathymetry (submarine topography)
  • topography (land elevations)
  • elevation
  • mean sea level
  • watershed
  • water cycle
  • shoreline
  • contour (line of equal elevation or equal depth)
  • peninsula
  • barrier island
  • compass directions: east, west, north, and south
  • sounding


Before you fly, take a look at the colors of Tampa Bay on the computer or website. Deep water is dark blue. (This also looks great printed in black and white). Find the ship channel. Highest points of land are between 10 and 20 meters above mean sea level. They are colored dark green. Find and label the "island of St. Petersburg." Find and label the city of Tampa. Low elevations along the coast are white. Find and label the Hillsborough River.

  • Ask students to highlight or mark features as the fly-though progresses on the unlabeled map. Give students a list of features to label.

  • Your fly-through will start over the Gulf of Mexico at the entrance to Tampa Bay. Fly east over the ship channel. As you fly toward Hillsborough County, your plane turns to look west from Ruskin to Pinellas County. Pause to look down the Little Manatee River into Tampa Bay. Next fly north over Hillsborough County and turn to look south over the city of Tampa. Notice how the Interbay Peninsula divides Tampa Bay, Hillsborough Bay, and Old Tampa Bay. As you fly out to the coast notice the elevation difference between Safety Harbor and Palm Harbor. Now you'll find yourself over the Gulf of Mexico again, looking east across Pinellas County. Notice the barrier islands where the beach communities, such as Treasure Island, are located. Your tour ends as you pass over Fort de Soto and return to normal map view with north at the top.

  • If students have seen the movie, Finding Nemo, they may recall how all water flows to the ocean. Invite a discussion on rivers, estuaries, the Gulf of Mexico and other oceans. Introduce the vocabulary term: watershed.

  • Discuss and mark the location of your school, neighborhoods, and other cultural features. Did you notice the low-lying bridge, Campbell Causeway, crossing Old Tampa Bay? Did you notice a creek or bayou running from Old Tampa Bay to Treasure Island? What else was interesting about the fly-through?

  • Introduce vocabulary such as elevation, topography, mean sea level, water depth and bathymetry. Ask students to draw a blue line at current mean sea level (0 meters). What would change if the water level was higher? Draw a new line in red along the 10-meter contour. What would change if the water level was lower? Draw a new line in blue at the negative 10-meter bathymetric contour. These lines can be visually estimated.

  • Unit conversions: to convert meters to feet multiply by 3.28 (use calculator if necessary). Discuss use of metric units by scientists. Explore the concept of international standards. Start with 1 meter. How many feet are in one meter? Then 10 m, -10 m and 20 m.

  • Define the draft of a boat. A boat's draft is measured from the bottom of the hull to the water line. Use the boat draft illustrations to discuss how the draft will change if the boat is empty and then filled with supplies. How do water depths on a map help boaters to choose safe routes?

  • Discuss the utility of bathymetric soundings for boating and ship traffic. Large ships must stay within dredged shipping channels because the seafloor outside these areas is much too shallow. Ships must be careful to stay within channel markers and constant monitoring and measuring are necessary to make sure these channels don't fill in with sediments, making shipping difficult and dangerous. On rare occasions, shallow sand bars may actually save the day. The pilot of a 374-foot vessel that was drifting too close to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge guided the boat into a sandbar instead of risking a collision with the bridge. See the St. Petersburg Times article for a current events discussion.

  • Find out how topographic and bathymetric maps are made. Do scientists and surveyors use different equipment for each type of map? Why?

Visit the DLESE website for in-depth lessons in bathymetry and topography, such as "Mapping Potato Island."

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