Explore the world's first underwater biosphere this summer!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.