By Paul Swider
Published September 30, 2007
Geography: The 1,800-acre Shell Key Preserve is a little bit of undeveloped barrier island and a whole lot of sheltered shallow water with sea grass beds and some smaller islands.
History: Most of the land of the preserve has been owned by the state for decades, but only recently has it been placed under a protection plan to protect its vital habitat for nesting shorebirds. That 2000 plan was an attempt to balance environmental and recreational interests, so the preserve also allows visitors. Some of these come to see birds, others come to party. That plan is in flux and may become more restrictive at any moment, so check before you launch a party barge. Some of the preserve is owned by the county and a little by private parties.
Beach: Of the 1,800 acres, only about 10 percent is the actual Shell Key and much of the middle of that is off limits at least part of the year, but the beach is still attractive for a visit because it is pristine. There are no services, no restrooms, no water fountains, no garbage cans, no nothing, but it is perfect beach and an excellent, aptly named place for shelling.
Amenities: There are no amenities, other than undisturbed environment, which some would say is the finest amenity of all. But anything you want on the key you have to bring, and you have to bring your garbage back with you. You can sunbathe, swim and hike around unrestricted areas, and you can even camp overnight, at least for the time being, but remember you have to bring your life with you and take it home again. Shell Key is one of the state's most important areas for shorebird nesting and is a study area.
Drawbacks: The island is accessibly only by boat, which makes it difficult if you don't have one. There are some private services to take you there, but it's awkward to have to rely on ferries and means you have to hand-carry everything you want to bring. The no-man's-land lawlessness that has made the spot a party place may be revoked soon, so that may diminish some of the island's attractiveness for some. There's no shopping or services of any kind, so if you forget something, you're out of luck.
Parking: There's no way to get a car out there, so that's not an issue, but beaching your boat is a common practice in the public areas. In fact, that's most of what the party crowd does is park. And drink. And other things we can't print. The state of that boat parking, though, will probably be part of any new management plan, so pay attention before you head out.
Bottom line: If you want a quiet, calm time watching birds on an unspoiled island beach, stay away from the north end on a weekend. Visit during the week and/or keep to the south end and you can enjoy a natural setting as opposed to an au naturel one.