Navigating A Boat Around Shell Key

Learn how to navigate safely around Shell Key Florida. Boating in Shell Key Preserve is carefully regulated to protect sea beds and marine estuaries. Please observe all posted boundaries and no-wake zones…

Before you go:

The north and south ends of the island are divided by several navigational barriers and shallow areas. Consider your boating route carefully, based on which side of the island you plan to visit. Examine the other navigational maps on this page to avoid shallow areas where you can run aground. Check the tide predictions for the date and time you intend to visit. Low tides can make some areas more difficult to access and can expose other navigational hazards. See the diagrams below for details.

shell_key_north_navigationGetting to the North Public Use Area:

The north public use area of Shell Key is most easily accessed from the Pass-A-Grill channel just north of the island or from the Gulf.    There is also a narrow channel allowing passage to the inside of the north end. (As of 2015, the north pass is completely closed)If you are in a motorized boat, be careful when you are on the inside (east) of the island.  Most of this area is restricted to motor boats.

Getting From the North end to the South End:

Warning!! There are many ways to run aground while traveling from the north public use area to the south public use area. Essentially, you have 2 choices. Either travel out of Pass-a-grille Pass into the gulf and return into Bunces Pass on the South – or you can come from the Skyway Bridge Channel in Tampa Bay. Never try to travel south on the east side of Tierra Verde – these waters are not passable! Notice that both Pass-a-grille and Bunces Pass have sand bars flanking them along their channels. The bars extend extend well out into the gulf and are a major navigation hazard. when navigating in our out of the pass. See the green lines below for the best route. Always use a depth finder.


From Fort Desoto Boat Docks – or the Skyway Bridge Channel:

If you are coming from the Skyway in Tampa Bay, you will travel west until you pass under the Bridge that leads to Ft. Desoto beach – and then go right by the boat docks on your way toward Shell Key (see image above).This easiest way to get to the south end is to put in at Ft. Desoto – where you will find the best maintained boat ramps in the county. Then follow the channel markers west toward the mouth of Bunces Pass. Be aware that the green markers on the north side of bunces pass channel are very close to shallow waters.


Boating Guidelines

  • Motor boats are restricted to idle speed in permitted areas only.
  • Be prepared to show boat registration, life vests and safety equipment to law enforcement at any time. Do not overload your vessel and keep a VHF radio and cell phone for emergencies.
  • Be observant of other vessels and always give way to large vessels which have limited maneuverability.

Anchoring at Shell Key

  • Always be aware of the current tides when choosing an anchoring location. If you arrive at high tide, you may find your boat “high and dry” when you want to leave at low tide. Many a boaters have been stranded overnight because they did not watch the tides.
  • Do not anchor in channels or a fairway.
  • Keep a safe distance from other boats that are already anchored. Allow for a margin of error that takes into account changing wind and tides.
  • Double Anchoring: Larger boats should use a bow and a stern anchor to keep their boat in place near the beach. Here is a video showing one method for double anchoring. We recommend pointing the bow of the boat away from the island when double anchoring – to keep the waves from coming over the back of the boat.

Browse the area with google maps…

View Larger Map

Questions and Comments

Article: Navigating A Boat Around Shell Key
58 comments on “Navigating A Boat Around Shell Key
  1. Bonnie says:

    Planning a camping trip the first week of March. Wondering if the the 30 minute paddle from Fort De Soto boat ramp to Shell Key South end camping area can be paddled in a canoe?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Bonnie,

      You should definitely be able to make the trip from the Ft. Desoto Boat ramps in a canoe. My suggestion would be to head north after launching to cross the Buncess Pass channel and get the most challenging waters behind you for the rest of the trip. Your biggest concern, of course, would be getting swamped by a reckless boater. I once crossed the channel in a canoe and mounted one of those orange bicycle flags on it to make myself more visible. Usually boaters will give you a wide berth, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions. Once you cross the channel, you can make the rest of the trip to west to Shell Key in the relatively calm and shallow waters within the preserve boundaries. Hope this helps :-)

  2. Kaitlin Ryckman says:

    I’m back for more questions–vacation is coming up. I’m kayaking to the camping tip and I’m wondering where the safest place would be to leave my kayak during the day, when i’m exploring the beach.
    Also I’m wondering if I’m able to kayak from the shell key to the fort desoto beach. I read that someone died trying to swim acrossed. I’m by myself so I’m trying to do this the safest way possible.
    Also how high is the high tide? I don’t want to wake up in the water, but i’d rather not sleep in the grass.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Kaitlin,

      I have never hear of anyone having a boat stolen on Shell Key. However, I have heard of people’s kayaks being taken by the high tide – so just make sure you pull the boat up well past the high tide mark. (more on this below)

      With regard to crossing Bunces Pass south to Ft. Desoto, it is definitely doable. I think it should only take 10 or 15 minutes to make the crossing. Your biggest threat would be from boats traveling through the channel. Swimming would be dangerous because boats can’t see a little head bobbing in the water – but a Kayak should be plenty visible. To be extra careful, you could mount a bright colored flag on your kayak so boats will steer clear. People make this crossing safely on a regular basis.

      As for the high tide mark and choosing your campsite, you can usually tell by the pattern in the sand where the high tide mark is. Areas near shore with tightly packed sand are most likely below the high tide mark. Of course, the tide levels will vary depending on the current moon phase. Sometimes there are extreme high/low tides and sometimes they are more moderate. Your best bet is to use the tide widget at the bottom of our home page to see exactly when (and how extreme) the tides will be on the dates that you are planning to camp.

      Another way to gauge the tide marks is by observing the sandspurs. Sandspurs will not grow below the high tide mark because they are inhibited by salt water. If I am planning to camp, I will first check how extreme the tides will be. If I expect moderate tides, I will camp just below the highest tide line to avoid the sandspurs. If, on the other hand, I expect an extreme high tide, I will camp just above the high tide mark. Again, the widget on our home page is a good way to check the tides. You can change the dates to get a feel for how patterns change throughout the month.

      Hope this helps!

      • Kaitlin Ryckman says:

        Thank you for the information! I hope it’s a good trip so i can do it more often–the flights are super cheap. Only concern now is that the new land/sandbridge will allow different wildlife or people that will make it a less pleasant/secluded experience (worry of theft/food storage, etc).

        • Jack Coletti says:

          I think that the effect of the land bridge is greater on the north end of the island. The south public use (camping) area is isolated from the north end by the bird protection area (BPA) in the middle of the island. There may be a few more raccoons and other animals on the island, but humans are less likely to trespass on the BPA and walk all the way to the south end illegally.

          • Kaitlin Ryckman says:

            I saw youtube videos of people advertising that you can walk the whole distance. I’m hoping that people aren’t breaking these rules.

  3. I flew down last week to try to kayak there and all the kayak places were closed due to high winds and/or low water. I plan on flying down in Feb/March to camp again and I hear there is a kayak rental service where the guy will meet you anywhere and give you a kayak for however long you want. Do you know of any other options (uber for boats, etc)? Is there a time of year that i won’t have to worry about low water?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Kaitlin,

      It is common not to rent kayaks in very bad weather. The ‘low tide’ issue seems kind of odd – unless they are launching from a very high, non-floating dock. The extreme high and low tides are connected to the monthly cycle of the moon. Both the sun and moon have a gravitational pull on the tides – so when they are together in the sky, we get more extreme tides. This happens once every lunar month. You can check the tides for your expected visit using the tide widget at the bottom of our home page. I just spoke with the folks at Island Action Sports on St. Pete beach and they will deliver kayaks to your location and allow you to keep them for multiple days.

      Hope this helps!

      • Kaitlin Ryckman says:

        Thanks for the response. I am flying down the end of next month and I found a kayak guy. Hoping weather cooperates. I hear it’s a mixed bag in January.

  4. Marni says:

    I was wanting to do primitive camping on Shell Key, but do not have a motorized boat. How far is it? Roughly how long would it take to kayak to the camping area?

  5. Lucinda L Johnston says:

    Where is the best put in to kayak to Shell Key?

  6. Sheila says:

    My father in law just gave us motor boat, that is made from the hull of an airboat. We would like to take out kids to Pass-a-grille, and take the boat over to shell island. My husband is experienced with using the boat on the Suwanee river, but not out in the ocean. How difficult would it be for us to take the boat to Shell Island? What is the best way for us to get there?

    • Jack Coletti says:


      You should have no problem getting to the island in a flat-bottom boat. If it is motorized, you can launch from Ft. Desoto boat docks and head to the south end. If you are paddling, you can launch from the Bayway on Tierra Verde and stay within the calmer preserve waters.

      Hope this helps,

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