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Gunkhole getaways: Hillsborough Bay, Fla.

By Tom Lenfestey

Leaving the slip and easing out of the marina, that delightful feeling that comes when the boat is free of land begins to take over. Gulls wheeling, stingrays undulating beneath the surface, dolphins playing leap frog off the bow. Perhaps for the last time in the next few hours the wristwatch is consulted, to log the time of departure. All that awaits is a gunkhole to visit for a late-afternoon getaway.

Florida’s Gulf coast is a honeycomb of gunkholing possibilities. The bottom usually is sand and offers good holding in the shallow coastal waters. However, chart watching is a must to avoid running aground.


Along the coast south of Cedar Key (east of Waccasassa Bay), you’re usually surrounded by mangroves — red mangroves and their arching prop roots starting at the shoreline, then black mangroves with their distinctive black pneumatophores, and behind them on slightly higher ground the white mangroves. Beyond the whites are the buttonwoods, the mangrove of choice for smoking fish, especially mullet.
Sailing north, there are fewer mangroves, and conifers give way to hardwoods in the Big Bend. Still farther north toward the Panhandle, you’ll notice the scent of the wildflowers: magnolias and mayflowers, and pungent Florida rosemaryBird-watching sailors find that most of this coast is a migratory bird paradise, offering

Discover why the author, Tom Lenfestey, is known as "Mr. Gunkhole." 

thousands of a single species, highly audible as the sun sets. Down in the Dry Tortugas west of Key West the cacophony created in spring by nesting sooty and noddy terns can make sleep nearly impossible.

So answering the question posed most often, one of our favorite over-night gunkholes is tucked in behind one of the spoil banks that line the ship channel in the Alafia River Sanctuary in Hillsborough Bay. We plot a course from the Tampa Yacht and Country Club marina to avoid Long Shoal and clear its No. 1 marker, then head southeast for the Alafia River marker. We watch carefully for cargo ships running the ship channel that make Tampa the 12th-largest port in the United States with an average of 10 ships per day.

On the Alafia we stand east to river marker No. 5, then turn south to anchor behind one of the spoil islands of the Alafia bird sanctuary. We can drop our hook there in good-holding bottom within about a half-hour cruise, enjoying a drink and watching for flights of roseate spoonbills and white ibises that begin returning to their nests at sundown. Brown pelicans swoop in to catch dinner, and during winter we see white pelicans doing their colonial fishing trick, herding the fish as a group. American oyster catchers and even bald eagles occasionally make an appearance.

We watch the lone sabal palm among the mangroves to be sure our anchor is holding; a great blue heron watches us. We relax with drinks and dinner. After the birds have returned to their nests, we still hear the call of the chuck-will’s widow or the whippoorwill that we will hear for the rest of the evening and most of the night. That is Florida west coast gunkholing.


Check out the other parts to our Gunkholing series:

Explore our picks for 10 great gunkhole getaways:

Learn The Art of Gunkholing

Or introduce yourself to "Mr. Gunkhole."