A nature preserve is, by definition, a natural habitat where animals and plants are protected, and kayaking is a great way to see the natural beauty, plant life, and wildlife that can be found there. But imagine, as you glide through the protected, peaceful waters in your kayak, if your view could include not only all of the natural beauty above the water but also what’s underneath your kayak as you paddle along.
That’s the beauty of clear kayaking in pristine Shell Key Preserve, a 1,828-acre preserve in the mouth of Tampa Bay about 12 miles south of St. Petersburg. The preserve includes a 195-acre barrier island known as Shell Key.
My husband Dean and I took a clear kayaking tour in February with our friends, Andy and Mary. Here are some tips to know when you go.
1. Go With a Guide
The advantage of going with an outfitter is that they take care of all the gear and provide a guide who can tell you all about the remarkable ecosystem of the surroundings as you paddle.
We booked a noon tour with Get Up and Go Kayaking, who says they are the first clear-kayak touring company in the United States.
Our 2-hour tour took us to the launch point where we met our guide, Bria, got into our kayaks, paddled past a shoreline of expensive homes out into the key, and crossed clear waters along a shoreline of mangroves.
Our destination was the beautiful Shell Key Beach, where we had a chance to get out of the kayak for about 20 minutes to walk the beach or sit and relax. Then we continued our tour as we looped around through shallow waters to an amazing mangrove tunnel and back to the launch point.
Pro Tip: Get Up and Go Kayaking trips launch from Billy’s Stone Crab restaurant in Tierra Verde. On the drive there, you’ll need to pay a one-dollar toll using cash, coins, or SunPass.
2. Choose From Day Or Night Tours
As of this writing, Get Up and Go Kayaking offers five to 6-day tours per day, including a sunset tour, plus a night tour called a glow tour.
We selected a day tour because of timing, the distance from our lodging to the launch point (we were staying in central Florida and didn’t want to get back too late), and because we thought we’d see more wildlife that way.
The sunset tour offers a chance to see the sunset over the key and then turn on color-changing, waterproof LED lights. According to a video on the website, the glow tour is a tour run completely in the dark, again, with LED lights and a guide leading the way.
- No previous kayaking experience is necessary.
- The outfitter will send you a waiver; to save time, sign it online before you go.
- The tandem kayaks have a weight limit of 425 pounds per boat and 250 pounds per seat.
- Wear comfortable, quick-dry clothes and bring sunscreen and a water bottle. If you take the night tour, Get Up and Go Kayaking recommends you wear a shirt with long sleeves, long pants, and apply bug spray underneath your clothes, because apparently, mosquitos like Shell Key Preserve, too.
3. Five Tandem Kayaks For A Small-Group Experience
Get Up and Go Kayaking tours are small and personal. They only take 10 people per time slot (five tandem kayaks) at one time. It’s great to go with a small group, but that also means tours can fill more quickly.
Keep this in mind when you make your reservation. Our first choice was a Saturday tour, but by the time we checked (the Wednesday prior), that date was sold out. Fortunately, the tour on Sunday still had room for us.
Our group of five kayaks meant we were always within earshot of the guide, and throughout the tour, we could easily stay together as a group.
4. Learn About Fascinating Red And Black Mangroves
Our guide, Bria, is a native Floridian who has been guiding tours for about a year. She told us about the mangroves and the important role they play in the delicate ecosystem of the preserve.
Red mangroves are the most salt tolerant of the three varieties in Shell Key and can be seen closest to the shoreline. Additional research tells me they have distinctive roots (fittingly called “stilt roots”). Black mangroves live just above the line of high tide. They build up the soil and help feed the ecosystem.
5. Watch For Wildlife And Sea Life
Part of the fun of this tour is the wildlife we could see above — and below — the water. The website tells me dolphins, rays, turtles, and even small sharks can be seen on these clear kayaking trips. There are also seasonal attractions: In summer, kayakers might see manatees and roseate spoonbills (birds), and in winter, white pelicans.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of that. Above the water, we saw cormorants floating, diving, and drying their wings. We also saw many other birds, including snowy egrets and terns. Shell Key Preserve is an important sanctuary for migrating birds that nest and winter there.
Jumping Fish and Underwater Sights
We also saw mullet (fish). Bria identified the mullet for us when we saw them jumping out of the water. Underwater, we saw seagrass (important food for migrating manatees), conch and intricate spiral, ruffled casings (their egg sacks), and various other small sea life.
The beauty of a natural setting is you never know what wildlife or sea life you are going to see.
6. Enjoy Shell Key Beach
We beached our kayaks at Shell Key Beach and got out. Bria hung back with the kayaks but told us to talk through a short path lined with trees to get to another more secluded beach where we saw a lone sunbather and a long stretch of beach. We walked along and enjoyed the view, beach treasures, the rhythmic waves, and the beautiful day.
Pro Tip: Shell Key is a small barrier island; there are no facilities here. Bring your essentials and as they say, “Take only photos, leave only footprints.”
7. Paddle Through A Mangrove Tunnel
If the tide is high enough, and it was for us, the tour takes you through a short but breathtaking mangrove tunnel. This is the place where we were told to “grab a root and stop,” and Bria told us more about the trees and water.
Since we didn’t see a lot of unique wildlife on our trip, this experience of kayaking through a mangrove tunnel made the tour. It was surreal to “park” our kayaks inside this natural tunnel where the mangroves had grown together, and the reflection of the trees and water was gorgeous.
I could have camped out here for much longer. But soon, it was time to head back, so we kayaked out of the tunnel to the other side and back to the launch point.
Post-Kayak Bonus: Eat At Billy’s Stone Crab Restaurant
After our tour, we decided to check out Billy’s Stone Crab restaurant. We hadn’t researched it, we just decided to try it because it was our meeting point for the kayaking tour, and that made it convenient. I must admit, I was skeptical, thinking it was a sub-par option that capitalized on their captive, kayaking audience. I was wrong.
Little did we know Billy’s has been serving up seafood for more than 50 years. Although we didn’t try their namesake stone crab (available October through May and caught in their own traps), our group of four enjoyed wild-caught jumbo gulf shrimp, zesty “dang-bang” shrimp tacos, large sea scallops, and a limited-time special: a whole Maine lobster. All delicious!
The Choice Is Clear
One of the joys of kayaking in a nature preserve is that you can never be sure what wildlife you will see, but you are sure to enjoy it all the same. If you get the chance to kayak in Shell Key Preserve, the choice is clear. Take it!
I hope these tips help you enjoy the clear kayaking awaiting you at the beautiful Shell Key Preserve.
Pro Tip: Only water vessels (private boats or public shuttles) are allowed in the preserve, but if kayaking is not your thing, you can check out the Shell Key Shuttle.