You don’t have to travel to places like the Everglades for a nature-oriented Florida experience. Take a look at all the opportunities south Pinellas offers. One opportunity in particular can be a guided kayak trip through mangroves to Shell Key Preserve.
Tierra Verde has a public drop-in entrance for kayak groups and individuals (2800 Pinellas Bayway South), right before the Fort De Soto toll. My group dragged our kayaks into the water and we began paddling toward our first mangrove tunnel.
This tunnel goes directly through Sawyer Key, a barrier island comprised of mangroves.
Mangroves at Sawyer Key
Mangroves are a group of trees and shrubs that thrive in a salty environment, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection. You can see mangroves along Tierra Verde’s shorelines as natural infrastructure minimizing flooding and erosion. Mangroves also serve as homes for creatures like fish, oysters, crab, and shrimp.
What’s cool about mangroves are their natural tunnels. My group adventured through a skinny tunnel within Sawyer Key, then we headed toward the next tunnel in Summer Resort Key.
While paddling to and from these tunnels, we made bird friends along the way: the double-crested cormorants. They have bright orange beaks and darker brown or black feathers. Cormorants love hanging around kayakers. When kayakers paddle, it moves the fish underneath enough for the cormorants to catch them.
Since the water is shallow, I watched these goofy birds dive under my kayak and pop back up with squirming fish in their mouths.
Summer Resort Key
Once we arrived at Summer Resort Key, we were half way to our destination of Irma’s Pass on Shell Key Preserve.
Summer Resort Key also consists only of mangroves, but these tunnels were wider and taller to pass through. We went through three tunnels where we saw a mangrove tree crab (Aratus pisonii) and an upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopea).
As we approached Shell Key, we saw a large group of American White Pelicans collectively sunbathing on a sandbar. Like every northerner in America, these type of pelicans fly down to Florida for the winters, making them the ultimate snowbird. They are one of the largest North American birds with a 9-foot wing span, according to The National Audubon Society.
Shell Key Preserve
We took a break at Irma’s Pass at the north end of the preserve. It’s named after Hurricane Irma when the storm cut a small pass through the middle of the key in September of 2017.
Shell Key is full of barrier islands like the ones we went through. They are the first line of defense against any storms. According to Visit St. Pete, a channel existed between Shell Key’s north tip and the mainland of Pass-a-Grille in the early ’90s. Over time, storms and tides sculpted the key. By 2015, the channel closed due to shifting sand, causing stagnant water.
With the help of Hurricane Irma, there is now a natural passage allowing Gulf of Mexico water to enter the preserve.
Families on boats enter the pass from the Gulf of Mexico, while kayak groups visit from within the preserve daily. This is a great place if you are in search of the prettiest shells.
After Irma’s Pass, we made our way toward Pannama Island for one more mangrove tunnel. We spent the rest of our 4-mile adventure observing the waterfront homes and watching mullets leap out of the water.
The overall trip took three-and-a-half hours. It was an immersive experience for someone who hasn’t explored this unique spot of south Pinellas.