John Pennekamp Coral Reef

One of the great natural treasures of the Southeast, John Penne-kamp’s coral reef flashes with color in the Straits of Florida. More than 95 percent underwater, the park stretches approximately 25 miles along the shore and 3 miles into the ocean, protecting a portion of the only living coral reef offshore the continental United States. Trade winds and warm waters of the Gulf Stream bless this invaluable ecosystem, as well as the park’s other intriguing communities—the seagrass beds, mangrove swamps, and tropical hammocks.

If you take a boat out to the patch reefs, you’ll behold an undersea garden that has taken from 5,000 to 7,000 years to grow. The reefs are actually complex communities formed by living polyps that secrete a limestone substrate around themselves. Over several generations, these substrates develop into a large, hard mass that not only anchors new polyps but shelters sponges, crabs, shrimps, and nearly 600 species of fish.

Early visitors to the reef could not resist taking home souvenirs in the form of live corals and seashells; what they couldn’t break off, they went after with hammers, chisels, even dynamite. As the demand for marine trinkets increased, commercial vendors stepped up the harvest. At a biological conference in 1957, Dr. Gilbert Voss of the Marine Institute of Miami predicted that without restricted access the reef would soon be dead. An assistant editor for the Miami Herald, John Pennekamp, became the reef’s most outspoken champion. Pennekamp had helped in the creation of Everglades National Park, and now he and Voss set out to marshal support from local government. So began a three-year battle against commercial businesses that depended upon plunder from the reef. The real winner was the reef itself, and in 1960 the country’s first undersea park was dedicated.

What to See and Do

First off, head to the Main Concession building  and check out boat tour times. If the weather is good, there are usually three glass-bottom and three snorkeling tours (fee) a day. Tours last about 2.5 hours; the snorkeling tours offer about 90 minutes in the water. You can also opt for a combination sailing and snorkeling tour on a 38-foot catamaran. Heading out to the reef, these tours show you the highlight of the park—the kaleidoscope of tropical life under the surface. Among the most colorful fish you’ll see are angelfish, parrot fish, snapper, and triggerfish. Brain and star corals are accented by softer corals such as sea fans, plumes, and whips that sway gently in the currents. In all, the reef harbors 40 different kinds of coral, and on days of good visibility you can see for more than 100 feet underwater.

Above the surface is worth a look, too. The park and adjacent Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary  cover a total of 178 square nautical miles, a dazzling sheet of blue-green water lined by mangroves. The park stretches nearly the entire length of Key Largo, longest of the keys.

If you’re stuck on land waiting for a tour, walk over to the Visitor Center. In addition to its friendly and knowledgeable staff, the center has a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium filled with a rainbow spectrum of fish, coral, sponges, and anemones. You can study the exhibits and watch films here to get a feel for what you’ll see out in the water. One worthwhile display, a tank of dead coral littered by trash, underscores the need to treat the fragile reef system with care; touching or standing on coral can harm it and is against the law.

After a boat tour, you’ll probably be ready to idle the rest of the day away on your own. You can rent snorkeling equipment at the concession building, then head over to Cannon Beach on Largo Sound. The rocky beach is typical of the Upper Keys, where the reef traps sand before it reaches the shore. You won’t see much coral this far in, but there are tropical fish of all colors and shapes. A reconstructed Spanish shipwreck lies in shallow water about 130 feet offshore, complete with cannon, anchor, and ballast stones. Another fun thing to do is to rent a canoe or kayak at the main concession and explore the network of mangroves and tidal creeks on a 2.5-mile canoe trail that leads to the Far Beach area. There are showers and a swimming area here.

Two short walking trails are easy to fit into a busy day and will give you an appreciation for the variety of Keys vegetation. The Wild Tamarind Trail loops through a hardwood hammock that includes tropical plants such as thatch palm, strangler fig, gumbo-limbo, and West Indian mahogany. Over near the water, the Mangrove Trail follows a boardwalk through red, black, and white mangroves, trees that can actually live in saltwater. Their cagelike roots provide sanctuary to young fish and help stabilize the shoreline.