Footprints in the Sand - Eco Trail
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Sea Life of the
Intracoastal Waterway

The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000-mile long waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, lagoons, bays, and sounds; others are artificial canals. It provides a navigable route along its length for barges, ships, and recreational vessels, helping them avoid many of the hazards of travel on the open sea. Construction began in 1826, and developments and changes have been made as recently as the late 20th century.

The section of the Intracoastal Waterway between Gulf Breeze and Ft. Walton is known as Santa Rosa Sound.

Santa Rosa Sound

Santa Rosa Sound is shallow, allowing light to reach the bottom to promote the growth of seagrass, which covers much of its floor. Seagrasses and marshes of the sound are important nursery grounds for many marine species. In fact, approximately 90% of all the commercially valuable marine species spend part or all of their lives in these protected grasses. Salinity varies here with the inflow of freshwater from the rivers and seawater from the rising tides. Creatures in the sound must be able to tolerate large changes in salt content over the course of the day. Some portions of the sound are quite deep and have no seagrasses at all. Instead, you’ll find a mucky/muddy bottom that supports a variety of shrimp, crabs, worms, bivalves, and many types of fish.

Current Route

The Intracoastal Waterway runs for most of the length of the Eastern Seaboard, from its unofficial northern terminus at the Manasquan River in New Jersey, where it connects with the Atlantic Ocean at the Manasquan Inlet, then around the Gulf of Mexico to Brownsville, Texas.

The waterway consists of non-contiguous segments: the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, extending from Brownsville, Texas, east to Carrabelle, Florida; a second section of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, beginning at Tarpon Springs, Florida, and extending south to Fort Myers, Florida.


The Intracoastal Waterway has a good deal of commercial activity; barges haul petroleum, foodstuffs, building materials, and manufactured goods. Recreational boaters also use it extensively. On the east coast, some of the traffic in fall and spring is from winter vacationers who regularly cruise south in winter and north in summer. The waterway is also used when the ocean is too rough for travel. The Intracoastal Waterway connects to several navigable rivers where shipping traffic can travel to inland ports, including the Mississippi, Alabama, Savannah, James, Susquehanna, Delaware, Hudson, and Connecticut rivers.

Fish Illustrations © Mike Ceglady; Flounder © Carol Cox; Speckled Trout © Jay Fleming

Sea Life

Numerous fish make their homes here, including mullet, red drum, speckled trout, and flounder. Mullet are easily recognizable by their silvery color, two distinct dorsal fins, and small, toothless mouths. They are considered a local delicacy.

Red drum, or redfish, are easily distinguished by their reddish color and the dark spot on their tails. They are a favorite among fishermen, as they usually put up a good fight and are very tasty.

Speckled trout, or spotted seatrout, are also popular with fishermen. They are best caught with live shrimp. Some fishermen throw glow sticks on fishing lines into the water when pursuing speckled trout at night—the fish are attracted to the light, making them easier to catch.

If you plan to fish in Santa Rosa Sound or anywhere on Pensacola Beach, be sure you are familiar with the applicable regulations and licensing requirements. Learn more at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.