KEY LARGO -- Fifty years after it was designated the first underwater park in the U.S., John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park looks much like it did when it was founded: Tropical fish swim through the coral reef and kayakers can still get lost in the maze of mangrove swamps.
And that’s no small feat, considering five decades of development that have changed the face of Florida, and the decline of coral reefs around the globe due to ocean warming and other factors.
Concerns about conserving the reef here began in the late 1950s, when researchers and preservationists realized that because of increases in tourism and the coral souvenir trade, the coral reefs were in danger of being destroyed.
The park, named for a Miami Herald editor who helped spearhead its creation, was established by the state legislature in 1960.
The land base of the park was opened to the public in 1963, but tourists had been coming to see the reefs for decades before that. Trains from Miami began running to the Keys in the early 20th century.
Driving the roughly 60 miles from Miami today along U.S. 1, “you can get a feel for what it was like in the early 1900s when people were coming down here on the railroad,” park manager Pat Wells said. Crossing over the “bridges on a train track that when you look down you could not see the track, you could only see water on both sides, it was like the train was going over open water as it was going down.”
Ellison Hardee, the park’s first manager, was 25 when he started at Pennekamp in 1963. He remembers the beauty and diversity of the reef, and “the excitement of a brand new adventure for a young man.”
Hardee says the reef “probably is not as visually pleasing today as it was the first time I looked at it, but almost none of Florida is and I’ve been looking at it for years.”
“There has been dramatic change over the last 30 years with the coral reefs,” said Wells, including die-off of the long-spined sea urchin.
But he added that “a lot of what we’re doing today is trying to make sure we preserve and protect the areas that are most resilient to ensure the future of our coral reefs.”
The reef remains the park’s biggest attraction, whether your first look is by scuba, snorkeling, or through the floor of a glass-bottom boat. High-speed, air-conditioned catamarans with windows in the floor offer daily trips to the reef from the park, and snorkeling and scuba boat tours are offered daily as well. Sponges, shrimps, crabs, turtles, lobsters and hundreds of species of fish live among the corals and could all clearly be seen through the boat bottom even on a recent cloudy day.
Another popular underwater attraction is the Christ of the Abyss bronze statue, which stands in 28 feet of water at the Key Largo Dry Rocks, covered in coral formations.
Park managers say a photo-worthy barracuda often hangs out in the area. At Cannon Beach, there are artifacts from a 1715 Spanish shipwreck featuring an anchor and cannons.
The park is also home to three nature trails, picnic tables, marina slips, and a visitors center with a recently refurbished 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, nature exhibits and a theater showing nature videos.
In addition, guided canoe and kayak tours are offered along the 2.5 mile-trail that winds through the park’s mangrove swamp.
Picnic tables and marina slips are available. RV and tent camping space should be reserved ahead of time.
Pennekamp is an easy day trip from Miami, located at mile marker 102.5 on U.S. 1. Drive about three hours farther south and you’ll hit Key West.
The road is lined with scuba and snorkel gear shops, stores selling fishing equipment and restaurants serving the catch of the day. There are also other state parks and wildlife sanctuaries to visit.
Pennekamp celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting several events including a snorkeling tournament, an environmental cleanup, an underwater rededication ceremony and an educational expo from Dec. 1 through Saturday.