Explore the world's first underwater biosphere this summer!

If exploration of the Florida Keys biosphere is something you want to check off your travel list, then visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Pennekamp was established in 1961 as the world's first designated underwater park, serving primarily as a marine environment that is super friendly to exploration of the depths. Don't overlook the opportunities presented by the park for just watersports. I will relate in a series of features, all the possibilities for outdoor recreation offered by this excellent state park. Initially I will concentrate on the land-based facilities and eventually move on to the other options the multi-faceted park presents.

Who Was John Pennekamp?

John Pennekamp was an Associate Editor of the Miami Herald, and he was instrumental in the establishment of the Everglades National Park. Through his writings and extensive service on various boards, he led the creation of this aquatic park - named in honor of him.

The park is located at Mile Marker 102.5, on the Atlantic Ocean shore of Key Largo and is easily accessible from Highway 1 (the main drag running down through the Keys). Rates for entrance start at $2.50 for a single person and run down (per person) from there if you are visiting in numbers. When you see how well maintained and clean this park is you will have a hard time believing that it plays host to over a million visitors a year. .

The marine section of the park numbers slightly over 60,000 acres, with just under 3,000 acres comprising the land based facilities. Located in and around the continent's largest sub-tropical hardwood hammock, the park is extremely accessible to all and offers some unique activities.

Some denizens in the aquariums
are a little shy at first.

A good place to start is the parks Visitor Center. Inside this building you will find a 30,000 gallon saltwater marine aquarium in the center of the room; a coral ledge resides here complete with fish swimming laps. Along the walls are a number of smaller aquariums showcasing some of the more colorful species one may run into out on the reefs. They were very well displayed and quite beautiful. I was especially fond of the seahorses; bizarre little creatures with their barnacle-like eyes clasping onto the vegetation in their tanks with their ribbed, prehensile tails.

The Visitor Center is a good place to get any information you may need, there is a desk manned by one of the park's nine rangers and they are very helpful and knowledgeable. There are other wildlife displays here and informative educational and interpretive exhibits as well. It is also air-conditioned, something I was very grateful on my initial visit.

If a breeze is what you seek, exit the Visitors Center and take a right, around the corner you will find an observation tower that rises three stories above the hammock and mangroves to give you an unimpeded view of the surrounding area. There is a telescope for long distance viewing and you will be able to take a bearing on the rest of the park. The bathhouse and marina will be directly in front of you and the Concession Building off to your left. For any commercial options you might be seeking head next to the Concession Building.

In this building you will find a well-stocked gift shop, snack stand, and the counters for the various tours offered by the park. There are multiple tours available for the marine section of the park and all are a fair value. Glass bottomed boat tours, snorkel tours, and sail/snorkel tours are all offered at very reasonable rates. The basics are this: the tours run around four hours, are very professionally run, and the concessionaires in the building will be able to provide you with updates on the latest conditions on the reefs. The friendly staff will also outfit you with snorkel gear if you need equipment for your tour. If the open water is not your bag, get some gear and head out the door and hike 50 yards down the shore to the most interesting of the three beaches available for your snorkeling or swimming pleasure.

18th Century Spanish
cannon hold the fort
at Cannon Beach.

Cannon Beach is easily recognized by the four Spanish cannon, defending the calm waters surrounding the park. If an open-water dive or snorkel trip puts your knees to shaking, this is an unparalleled opportunity to do a little wreck dive within sight of your car.

Just over a hundred feet offshore, in less than six feet of water, is a replica of a Spanish galleon shipwreck, complete with authentic 18th century cannon, anchors, and ballast stones. There are all kinds of little fishies swimming around and plenty to see in this very safe environment that even the most timid swimmer should feel comfortable with.

The two other beaches have their own character. The Far Beach probably has the nicest beach and is sheltered with a natural looking artificial seawall. It has a pavilion nearby with a few vending machines and is right next to the last of the three beaches, one that is probably more suited to snorkeling than swimming. It should be said that the beaches of the Keys are very seldom sandy, that is not the natural state of things in the Keys. The Far Beach does offer an approximation of the classic sandy dune if just lying in the sun and tanning is your thing.

Rental options in the park also include kayaks and canoes at the marina. Just meander to the marina rental booth and you can make arrangements to do a little mangrove exploring on the well-marked channel trails. Canoes for doubles and single kayaks make for a close-up inspection platform when paddling the mangroves.

Canoes and kayaks are available for rental in the park; kayak along the mangrove trails for closeup wildlife views.

The waters are calm and there is an abundance of bird viewing in these areas. Great White Herons are everywhere in the mangroves and are unflustered by a silently approaching, human-powered vessel. Turkey Vultures and Osprey are common raptors in the park; buzzed by an Osprey is something you will not soon forget - their shriek is one of the more haunting things I have ever heard. There is also the possibility that you will see a manatee. These placid sea mammals are a treat and totally harmless but their lumbering ways and near surface swimming makes them vulnerable to the props of the powerboats that are ever increasing in Florida's waters. If you are lucky enough to glimpse one make sure you take a pic because there is every chance that your grandchildren will not be able to enjoy these vestiges of an earlier era.

Pennekamp has a well
equipped dive center in the
park's substantial marina.

Pennekamp also offers a very well stocked dive shop in the marina area. You can make arrangements to take any number of dive training classes and then get yourself out onto the reefs. They have rentals for those certified, trips out to the reef, and sales equipment sales.

One of the park's premiere attractions is the Christ of the Abyss. This statue, though located outside the park's marine boundaries, is within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, accessible on a park. Also just outside the parks boundaries is the Spiegel Grove, a recently sunken ship that offers unparalleled wreck diving opportunities (this particular dive is not offered through the park's programs that caters to beginners and this is clearly an advanced dive scenario).

Aside from dive instruction, rentals and sales of equipment, you can also get some tips on underwater photography from one of the dive shop's instructors. Just ask Nicole or Steve at the counter in the dive shop for details and they'll get you lined out.

A seahorse gallops
past in one of
Pennekamp's many aquariums.

Back on the beach there are still a few things that you can enjoy in the park. If the local hotels have put a crimp in your pocket book the park has over 40 fully equipped campsites. These are very nice and well maintained sites, and are even gated at night for your security (they will give you a code for the keypad on the gate). I am assured by the park's director, Eric Keifer, that these gates are truly unnecessary; there has been very little trouble over the years in the park, but better safe than sorry. Along those lines it should also be mentioned that there is no wildlife in the park that poses a danger to people. There has never been a shark attack in its waters and there are no crocs or gators to worry about. The worst thing you'll deal with are the mosquitoes - be well prepared for the "natural" part of life in the Keys.

Finally the park offers two very nice trails for your non-motorized enjoyment. The Mangrove Trail at the far end of the park is handicapped accessible on a boardwalk meandering through the mangroves. There are informative plaques along the areas explaining the biosphere in some detail, and I found them incredibly interesting. The mangroves are such an alien environment to a fellow from the flatlands with a decade in Alaska. I look forward to spending more time there and learning more about them.

The other walking option is at the park entrance, called the Tamarind Trail; this one highlights some of the native species of the hardwood hammock and also has many informative plaques accompanying tagged trees. Both trails are about 20 minute hikes and are very user friendly.

For those who are interested in learning more about this particular environment the Dagney Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park offers guided walks and pamphlets for self-guided explorations. Rangers from Pennekamp provide an interesting description of the local flora and fauna; ccheck at the entrance or at Pennekamp Visitor Center for dates and times. Dagney Johnson Park is located just a few miles north of Pennekamp and is easy to find.

Ranger James L. Brown displays
an invasive orchid in
Dagney Johnson Key
Largo Hammock Botanical
State Park.

This smaller park is located in the remains of a commercial development that was originally intended to house some 50,000 people. Remnants of the development remain but the reclamation effort proceeds apace.Although the roads were destructive to the habitat they make a pleasant pathway to study the surrounding greenery. Your guide will point out the various trees and plants and explains their adaptations make them viable inhabitants of this area. This is the largest hardwood hammock in the continental U.S., playing host to over 300 species of vegetation, many of which are serve as home to a large number of birds and insects species. I found especially engaging the Poisonwood Tree, the Gumbo Limbo (whose properties make it the wood of choice for carousel carvers), and the strangler figs growing down from the tops of other trees, sprung from bird droppings and sending down air roots to eventually envelop their hosts.

Some of these plants are protected because they are the home to other endangered species. The Mangrove Cuckoo, White Crown Pigeon and Bahamian Mockingbird all frequent this area and are endangered species drawing birders from all over the world. Butterfly enthusiasts and botanists also migrate to this singular habitat which plays home to the Key Largo Wood Rat and the Key Largo Cotton Mouse, both also endangered. Although you won't see any on the Atlantic side of the road, the crocodiles are protected in this area; although gators aren't rare in Florida, as far as I know, this is the only place in the country home to crocs.

Dive on In What an interesting place - you can walk around for free!

That just about covers the majority of land based options available to you on the beach in Pennekamp State Park - the world's first underwater park.

I will explain the joy found in the park's 60,000 aquatic acres in the next installment - including snorkeling opportunities in this green and azure wonder world. Don't change that dial!.

— By Michael Donner, Florida Keys Correspondent.

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