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
83 comments on “Navigating A Boat Around Shell Key
  1. Marc says:

    Can you get the north end of shell key by kayak from the south end of pass a grille? Is it recommended? And how long would it take? Looking to do a day excursion out there soon. Any info would be greatly appreciated!

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Marc,

      The trip from Pass-a-Grille to the north end is certainly doable. Under calm conditions, you could probably do it in under 20 minutes. The only concern you would have is boat traffic. It can be a busy channel – but if you are reasonably confident in your ability to handle the passing boat wakes, you should be fine. Timing will also be a factor. A weekday morning would be much calmer and less busy than, say, a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I have made the trip from Pass-a-Grille a few times without any problems – but the conditions have always been calm when I did. Hope this helps.

  2. Sara Showalter says:

    Hi Jack,
    We are going to Treasure Island. My daughter has swimming with dolphins at the top of her bucket list! Is there any place close that I could help her check this one off. Thank You.

  3. Hannah Hutchison says:


    I am looking into doing a kayaking trip over to Shell Key with a small group of people. We are hoping to camp for two nights on Shell Key, and make day excursions in the kayaks to explore other nearby islands and keys. I was told that Egmont Key would not be a good choice to venture by kayak from Shell Key, because there is a rough main channel that we would have to cross to get there. Are there any nearby islands or natural landmarks that you know of that would be really cool for a day excursion (coming FROM Shell Key) but that is safe for kayaks?

    Thank you so much!

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Hannah,

      Since you will be camping on the south end of the island, you will be within kayaking range of Ft. Desoto park and the Pinellas National Wildlife Refuge to the east. (and, of course the entire Shell Key Aquatic Preserve). The truth is that most of the coastal mangrove islands that you will come across are pretty swampy and do not have a lot of land area to explore. I agree that Egmont would be a considerable challenge by kayak – and possibly dangerous. Egmont is amazing because of the historic structures dating back to the mid 1800’s – and the untouched natural environment. So, within range of south Shell Key, you could explore Ft. Desoto park for its historic structures that also date back to the Spanish American War era. And, really, Shell Key itself is the next best this to Egmont with regard a natural environment that you can hike around. (make sure you have good shoes for the sandspurs)

      Hope this help a little 🙂

  4. Maria says:

    Hi there! A couple of friends and I are planning on camping at Shell key early April. I have a couple of questions:
    Where could I rent a kayak overnight? I have one but I don’t believe my friends do….might want to rent one to tow behind to carry the rest of our gear as well.
    What is the best launch place/path to reach Shell Key camping area by kayak?

    Thanks so much!

  5. Madeline Pelon says:

    Hi Jack,

    I am looking to camp on Shell Key overnight with some friends. Can you tell me the best places to get a boat shuttle to the island and where I could rent a kayak overnight from? Would it be difficult to kayak out to the island from the mainland?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Madeline,

      As I understand it, there is no longer a shuttle that will leave you on the island for an overnighter. I believe the folks at Blind Pass Boat and Jet Ski Rentals will rent you a kayak for overnight trips. Kayaking from Tierra Verde is totally doable. You can avoid the Bunces Pass Channel by launching from the side of the road on the Bayway – just across the road from a spot known locally as “Butler Hole” The trip from there is in shallow preserve waters – with a leisurely path past a few mangrove islands (Sawyer Key, Summer Resort Key & Sister Key) before getting to the South Public Use Area of Shell Key. Hope this helps 🙂

  6. Mike Thomas says:

    Great infö here! Thanks! We are camping at Fort Desoto for two nights in February and would enjoy kayaking around Shell Key. Are there rentals?

  7. Jim says:

    Hey Jack
    Love the work you are doing. The closure of the North channel really has stagnated the water at that end but I personally enjoy the reduced boat traffic up that way. I am an environmentalist and head a paddle board club in North County that periodically runs out to Shell Key. If anybody wants to head out there with us please reach out to us.

    Tampa Bay Paddle Sports..

    Take Care.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Jim! I’ve been meaning to put together a dedicated page for kayak and paddle board info. If you would like to co-author such a page, I’d be happy to collaborate. In the meantime, I took the liberty of editing your comment to include a link to your website. Thanks for your thoughts. Clear Skies 🙂

  8. David LeJeune says:

    Can you leave your car at Ft Desoto Boat Ramp for multiple nights?

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for answering everyone’s question on Shell Key Preserve.

    When I visited the Ft Desoto Boat Ramp recently it appeared that you could pay for only 1 24 hour period to leave your car there. Have you heard of anyone working out an agreement with Ft Desoto where you could pay to leave your car at the boat ramp for multiple nights to stay on Shell Key longer? We are going to kayak over so coming back each day by kayak to pay for additional nights is possible but not very practical. Our plan is camp for a couple of nights if we can work out the logistics.

    Thanks for your help!

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi David,

      I have left my car at the Ft. Desoto boat ramps for as many as 4 days and have never had a problem. I just buy multiple tickets on the same day and display them on my dash. Sometimes I make trips back to the docks to pick up people on subsequent days or to get supplies. If that’s the case, I just get a new pass while I’m there.

      Hope this helps. (and sorry for the late reply)

  9. Hey Jack, Is there a way to get over to shell key from Billy’s Stonecrab Restuarant? On the map (,-82.7297016,578m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en) It looks like if I drive past the restaurant it runs into a park like area? Can I park there or somewhere nearby and wade or walk across to the north eastern tip just past the restaurant. It looks VERY close on the map, but I’m not sure how deep that water is, if its safe, and if those are rocks along that area of water? Its the road that dead ends from the restaurant – there are a couple of turn a rounds (circles) there.

    Also regarding Fort Desoto Park. Is there a good area for shell hunting? My thoughts are, if shell key island has an abundance of shells, which is what I am reading from many boat charter sites, such as this one, ( then wouldn’t the park have many shells to find as well?
    Thanks! Cherie’

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Cherie,

      The north end channel is almost completely closed now – so you should be able to safely wade across at that point. I can’t recommend any place nearby where you would be allowed to park – but it seems worth checking out. As for the shells on Ft. Desoto, they should definitely be as plentiful as on Shell Key – however, I would think that the competition for the nicest shells would be greater at Ft. Desoto do to the higher number of shell seekers. In general, I find that whole shell specimens are more plentiful in the winter. The reasons being that 1) there are fewer people on the beach looking for them and 2) the cold weather can cause greater mollusk mortality and 3) the winter storms tend to kick up a lot of new shells from Gulf bottom. Hope this helps 🙂

  10. Gwen says:

    What can be done to open the passage at the North End of Shell key… The quality of the water is suffering… It stinks… we were just there this last Sat… The big Boulders need to be removed… Help Anyone know who to contact or who could help with this bad situation?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Yes – A number of people have contacted me to express their concern about the closing of the north Island channel. As I understand it, the owner of this land (Billy’s Stone Crab) is developing the small peninsula off of the northeast tip of the island. They installed rip-rap stones to keep the land stable for development. They have also installed a few jetties. They contracted a dredging company to clear the channel once after building the jetties. But it was futile because of the riprap and jetties appear to be stiffing the natural ebb and flow of the shoreline.

      You could contact Pam Leisure (Pinellas County Environmental Programs Manager) at to see if the county has looked in to this situation. I would imagine that the developers received permits to build these structures. I would also be curious to hear what the county has to say about this situation.

  11. Larry says:

    does anyone know how the narrow pass on the east of shell island was recently closed? Boulders have recently been positioned to completely close this passage on the Pass-a-grille channel side. I kayak in the area from Tierra Verde and am no longer able to fish the area south of there . This closure stops the normal flow of bait into the mangrove islands in the area.


    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Larry,

      This closure is the result of the jetty that was installed by the residential development being built by the owners of Billy’s Stone Crab restaurant. They built this jetty in summer of 2013 and then hired a dredging company to clear the channel However, it was clear at the time that the jetty was very poorly conceived and would require twice-per-year dredging to keep it open. Of course, Billy’s has not kept up with the dredging and now the entire water flow to the marine estuary on the north end has been blocked. There has been a lot of speculation about the motivation for causing this blockage. Seems like this situation would be worthy of further investigation.

      Clear Skies,


  12. Rachel says:

    Hi there,
    Are there any updates about how to get to Shell Key as a camper? I saw that you can rent kayaks from Frenchy’s, but I am wondering about whether there are any updates about shuttles that will take campers..


  13. plaineblaine says:

    Great info on the site, Jack. Thanks for all of your good info. Recently moved to Tierra Verde and learning to kayak. Have made it from the east side northward to the Tierra Verde Marina, and southward to the Fort DeSoto Marina, each taking about a half hour. How tough is the paddle from Fort DeSoto Marina to the nearest Shell Key beach, or from Tierra Verde Marina to same, and which route is easier?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Plaineblaine,

      I think both locations are well within reach of Shell Key. I’m not entirely sure what location you are referring to with ‘Fort Desoto Marina’ – but the public boat ramps at Ft. Desoto are very close to the South Public Use area and would be a very casual trip on a kayak. Getting to the south end of the island from Ft. Desoto would be easier, I think, than making a trip to the north end from Tierra Verde Marina – because it’s closer – and also there is typically less boating traffic in Bunces Pass (south, between SK and Ft. Desoto). Pass-a-grill on the north end is notoriously busy with traffic – but on a quiet day, it’s totally doable. (You could avoid the traffic by staying in the residential intracoastal waterways) If you launch from the side of the road on the Bayway you can make it all the way the Shell Key by staying within the aquatic preserve boundaries – which means no motor boats to avoid. This route could get you to either end of the island in a short trip.

      Clear Skies!


  14. Sally says:

    How far is the paddle from the pinellas south bay way to shell key? Where do you park your car for the kayak drop/water access? Is it most always a calm paddle out and back

    • Jack Coletti says:


      The paddle is about 2 to 2.5 miles. You can park your car on the side of the Bayway – or at the Ft. Desoto boat docks. (see links in the comments below). This stretch of water is a shallow estuary and is relatively protected from the strongest winds and currents. That said, it’s always a good idea to check your marine forecast before heading out.

      Clear Skies,


  15. Jill says:

    Thanks so much, Jack!

  16. Christina says:

    Where can I park overnight for free to camp on shell key, We will be going via kayak and want to shortest route possible (also without crazy currents)

    Thank You!

  17. Ken says:

    Jack, We are staying at the Bilmar on Treasure Island next week; any tips on where to go bird watching from there? (We will have a rental car.) Thanks.

  18. debbie kyle says:

    how do you get there by car?

  19. bill says:

    Is the camping area easily accessible by canoe?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Absolutely. If you launch from anywhere on the Pinellas Bayway S, most of the waters will be only a couple of feet deep – and usually pretty calm. If you launch from the Ft. Desoto boat docks, you’ll need to cross the Bunces Pass channel – which can be a bit choppy if it’s windy. If you’re coming from the north, or Pass-a-grille, you’ll need to cross the boating channel also. But once you’re inside the preserve boundaries everything is quite accessible by canoe or kayak.

  20. Janel says:

    We were ‘suppose’ to be camping on the island Feb 24-26th. Hubbard’s canceled their ferry to Shell Key and the on out of Pass-a-Grille refuses to transport campers because ‘they can’t just leave us’. We get left on northern uninhibited islands without a problem from Ferry companies.
    Help! Who can I call? Where do I look?

    • Jack Coletti says:


      I’m sorry that I don’t know of any service that will take campers to the island. I have heard that the folks at will be offering guided camp tours to Shell Key – but I’m not sure if they have started the service or what it will cost. At this time, they don’t offer overnight DIY boat rentals. (If you call, ask for Todd or Ben and tell them that Jack at sent you.). Other than that, you might check around to see if you can find an overnight kayak rental. If I hear of any other options, I’ll post that information here.

      Good Luck,


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