TAMPA, Fla. - The weekly parade of 5,000 people has become commonplace: 2,500 people shuffle off a towering cruise ship, while 2,500 others race on.
"It works like clockwork," said Calvin Lodge, an officer aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's luxury liner Dawn. "It has to run very smooth and very scheduled."
Cruises are the part of the Port of Tampa many know well. But there is so much more going on dockside.
"The port is kind of a well hidden secret," said Richard Gent, with CF industries, which operates at the port.
With cooperation from the Port of Tampa, FOX 13 spent four months visiting the port to see its varied operations. We tagged along and watched, up close, at how the port's many tentacles touch our everyday lives.
"It's like organized chaos," said Gary McClelland, port director for Customs and Border Protection.
With ships coming and going at all hours, the work goes on non-stop.
"There's action all the time," said Lawrence LeDuc, a longtime tugboat captain.
LeDuc is nonchalant pushing in a 600-foot-long ammonia ship named Kent. He's seen it all out here, even if consumers have no idea what's happening here.
"We're behind the scenes," he said.
The ammonia aboard the tanker will pump inland, then return as fertilizer.
"Diammonium phosphate is the technical term," said CF's Lynne Vadelund.
"It goes to the North American farmer," she said.
CF stores fertilizer in huge piles that tower several stories. But it isn't here long.
"It will be heading up the Mississippi, hopefully tomorrow," Vadelund continued.
A half-mile away, bells are ringing and lights are flashing. A container ship from Jamaica has just docked, and customs officers are about to greet it. But there are no surprises.
"We know in advance everything that's coming in," said CBP's McClelland.
Inspections take place on-board and port side, where a specialized CBP truck pulls up and unfurls. A long arm swings from the bed and officers pull out caution signs that warn of radiation.
"X-ray technology," McClelland says. Stuffed cargo containers are pulled off the ship and placed beside the truck. It the drives alongside and has a look—outside, in.
"We can, in one minute, make a quick assessment whether we need to hold a shipment up," McClelland says. "We're really only looking for high-risk cargo."
In some cases, officers open the containers. And when that's not enough, the containers are taken to a quarantine of sorts for an old-fashioned search, box-by-box and by hand.
McClelland's officers suddenly spot a shipment of electrical adaptors sporting the UL logo.
"There is a presumption that is a very safe product," McClelland said. But there's enough intelligence on the cargo to halt it. "This is a counterfeit."
That's the exception. Most cargo is quickly cleared and sent on its way.
And that usually means trucks. Lots of trucks.
In one corner of port, located outside its confined, tractor trailers are lined up mirror to mirror. But these particular big rigs aren't moving cargo, they are the cargo.
"These are basically million-mile trucks," said Stephen Kin of Heavy Parts International. The aging trucks are out of service here, but they are in demand elsewhere.
"They want them," Kin said.
Heavy Parts Int'l has developed a direct route: from Tampa to St. Petersburg—St. Petersburg, Russia.
"Door to door service," said Igor Yurchenko, the brainchild of this unusual slice of world trade. "Two weeks' transit time. Nobody can provide service like that."
Russian trade rules require that the truck ships disassembled. So, on this end, two American mechanics carefully dismantle everything. And on the other end of the line, two Russian mechanics put it all back together again.
"It's rather ironic," Kin said.
It's ingenious trade like this that keeps the port in business and builds Tampa's bridge to the world.
"I don't think people realize the amount of freight that is moving," Kin said. "I think it's very much behind the scenes."
But these people don't work the docks for fame.
"It's a good job," said LeDuc, the tugboat captain.
They do it because it's vital.
"It's tremendously important," said Gent.
They voluntarily pull heavy duty, even if it's out of the public's view.
"We're happy to do it," McClelland added.