Tidal wetland environments have an ecological zonation that corresponds with tide levels, in particular with mean high water. However, mean sea level (MSL), which has shown a persistent rise in the Gulf of Mexico during this century, is the most common reference for water level change. We examine here the relationship between mean sea level and mean high water in describing water level changes in the Gulf of Mexico. The records of monthly mean water level for four stations, Galveston, Pensacola, Cedar Key and Key West, are partitioned into the annual cycle, the long-term trend, and a low-frequency (> 10 year period) fluctuation. The trend is the same for MSL and mean higher high water (MHHW) for all stations investigated except Cedar Key, Florida, where MHHW has increased more rapidly than MSL. The low-frequency fluctuations are similar between the stations and the tidal datums. MSL can predict MHHW with discrepancies of up to 5 cm owing to the lunar nodal cycle and an annual tidal signal. Low-frequency climatic fluctuations produce greater variations than the nodal cycle, but the difference in frequency can lead to interference between the two in MHHW. The combination of the two can produce sea-level rises in excess of 1 cm year-1 over several year periods, even in areas having long-term trends of 0.2 cm year-1 or less.