John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Key Largo, Florida.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park encompasses part of the only living coral reef in the United States, as well as small areas of "tropical hammock" (dry broadleaf evergreen forest) and mangrove habitats. There are excellent indoor displays to describe the ecology and organisms of the reef, but the place to be is on the reefs!
There is an entrance fee to enter the park. Concessionaires operate tour boats for snorkeling and scuba. You must be certified to go on a scuba trip, of course, but no experience (other than a general ability to swim) is required for the snorkel trips. Trips vary in length from two hours to six hours, and the price varies accordingly. There are glass-bottom boat tours for those who don't want to get wet, or can't swim. You can also rent canoes (or bring your own) to tour the mangrove swamp, or take short hikes on the upland nature trails and the boardwalk trail through the mangroves. Outside the park, many companies rent sail boats and power boats for touring the bays and reefs.
Reservations are recommended for all boat tours and boat rentals and for camping.
I highly recommend taking the concessionaire's tour boats from the park. If you don't know exactly where to go, you may be disappointed, but the guides will take you to some of the most beautiful and interesting places in the park. The "tours" are quite unstructured. The boat brings you to a nice reef and anchors, and you dive and return to the boat pretty much at your leisure.
When I was a student at the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power School in Orlando, I went down to Key Largo several times, sometimes camping nearby, sometimes staying in a motel right on Key Largo.
I'm sure a good deal has changed since I was last there in 1977. For one thing, the protected area surrounding the park has grown. The park is now included in the "Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary" which provides state and federal cooperation to preserve the reef and its related ecosystems. Many of the changes are probably for the better.
Here are some Web pages that I think you will find useful:
How to Get There
If you're in the Keys, take the Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1) north to Key Largo. The park entrances are on the right. From anywhere else, take U.S 1 south to Key Largo, and the park is on the left.
Terrain and Ecosystems
The coral reef is pretty much what you would expect. Although it is not literally in the tropics, only an expert would notice the difference between these reefs and any reef in the Caribbean. Like coral reefs everywhere, they are home to an astonishing array of animals and plants, just like you've seen on television.
The water is as clear as air. Well, not literally, but your visibility is limited by the obstruction of one growth of coral after another, rather than by the negligible opacity of the water.
Water temperature varies somewhat with the season, but most of the year you don't need a wetsuit. When I was there, in spring and summer, you could snorkel all day and never feel the slightest chill.
Some of the reefs have suffered from human impact, especially from too many divers behaving too carelessly. (Remember, coral is a living thing. It's not a rock you can sit or climb on, so stay off it!) When I was there, the dive tour concession was no longer bringing snorkelers to see the famous "Christ of the Abyss" statue submerged in Key Largo Dry Rocks reef, because the coral in the area was nearly all dead and white. This condition has improved in recent decades, from what I hear, due to better enforcement of the rules and restrictions on the number of visitors to each reef per day.
The mangrove swamp area of the park is a tidal flat covered with a jungle of the water- and salt-tolerant mangroves. The multiple trunks and root stalks of these bush-like trees collect sand and organic detritus forming their own soil and creating a rich environment for small fish and other marine life. Despite the muddy soil under the mangroves, the water remains crystal clear, so you can easily observe the creatures that live there. Besides the life in the water, several animals live on the mangroves above the water, including insects, birds, and even crabs.
The tropical "hammock" is a dry-land forest well above sea level. The hammock in Pennekamp Park is dominated by gumbo-limbo trees, but you will also find a several typically tropical trees such as wild tamarind (for which the trail is named), cabbage palm, and strangler fig. There are few animals to be seen there except for birds.
The best way to get to the reefs is by the tour boats offered by the concessionaires in the park. Scuba tours will vary based on your certification (and certification courses are available in the park for all levels). Certified PADI Open Water divers can take a tour that includes two stops at two different reefs or wreck sites. Gear rental is available.
Snorkel tours are either a 2 1/2-hour powerboat ride or a 4-hour sailboat ride. Either tour includes about an hour and a half on one reef. Gear rental is available. You can also rent snorkel equipment and get used to snorkeling off the beach before you take a boat trip. This is an excellent idea, especially if you've never used a snorkel before. There are no reefs within swimming distance of the beach, but there are fish and other marine creatures to observe while you get used to breathing underwater, or just wait for the next boat tour.
You can also rent a power boat, or bring your own, but it's difficult to know the good diving sites, and the good times of day to get there, unless you follow the tour boats.
For the less adventurous, there are glass-bottom boat tours. This 2 1/2-hour tour covers a lot of territory, as the boat is quite fast when traveling between reefs.
You can also stay in the Visitor Center and enjoy their large aquarium featuring many plants and animals from the reef community, other exhibits about the park's wildlife and environment, and nature videos playing periodically. This might be a good way to familiarize yourself with the park before you set out on your own adventure, or a place for those with mobility problems to enjoy themselves while the rest of the family goes diving or canoeing.
There are two ways to explore the mangroves: By canoe or by boardwalk. Using a canoe or kayak (available for rent in the park), you get an excellent view of both the water and the arboreal wildlife, and you are free to wander down the winding channels of the canoe trail wherever you please. On the boardwalk Mangrove Trail, you can explore much of the same environment, but you will also see the drier parts of the mangrove forest that a canoe can't reach.
The Wild Tamarind Trail explores the upland tropical hammock. It is well marked, very level, and quite easy to hike.
All hiking trails are short and easy enough for those with mobility problems to negotiate. Glass-bottom boat tours can also accommodate the handicapped. Canoeing and snorkeling require moderate physical fitness, but the average couch potato can handle either activity well enough to enjoy it.
Plants and Animals
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things you will see there, and some of the more interesting things you might see there.
Since there are such differences among the three main ecosystems of Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, I'll subdivide this section accordingly. Several species are listed more than once, as they occur in two or all of these ecosystems.
- Parrotfish. What is that clicking sound? Watch a parrotfish for a while: Each time they take a bite of coral with their monstrous "beaks," they make a click that can be heard for hundreds of yards around. And where does all that beautiful tropical beach sand come from? Watch a parrotfish for a while: A huge proportion of that powdery sugar-white sand is parrotfish excrement. Species commonly seen in Pennekamp are the huge rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia), bicolor parrotfish (Cetoscarus bicolor), stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride), and over a dozen other species.
- Great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda). Don't be afraid, but they surely do look scary!
- Eels. You might possibly see a large green moray eel (Gymnothorax funebris) lurking in a crevice, or a number of smaller, more colorful eels swimming along the reef.
- Wrasse. Several species inhabit the reefs. If you're very patient, you may find a "cleaning station" where larger fish are cleaned of parasites and dead skin by the daring little wrasse that even swim inside to clean the larger fish's teeth and gills.
- Damselfish. Among the more commonly seen fish, quite colorful, and very bold. You will probably see bicolored damsels (Stegastes leucostictus), cocoa damsels (S. variabilis), and sergeant majors (Abudefduf saxatilis), among others.
- Lined seahorses (Hippocampus erectus). Rare on the reefs, but not unheard of. They prefer dense growths of seagrass.
(Bear in mind that most corals are active only at night. If you see tentacles moving in and out of the coral head, it is probably not the coral itself, but a fanworm or shrimp that has burrowed into the coral head.)
- Brain coral (Diplora strigosa). Perhaps the most striking and unmistakable coral in the park.
- Star coral (Montastrea cavernosa).
- Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis). The classic tree-like branching hard coral.
- Sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina). A soft coral that doesn't look much like the reef-building hard corals, but is very interesting to see.
- Spiny lobster (Panulirus argus). Protected within the park, they grow huge here. They are usually rather bold, as they know that divers are not going to bother them.
- Christmas tree fan worms (Spirobranchus porites). You may see their feathery tentacles extending from a hole within a brain coral.
- Conchs (Strombus gigas). They were rather rare when I was there, owing to commercial fisheries in the areas outside the park. I hear they're making a comeback.
- Sea anemones. There are several species, but you won't find Nemo. Clown fish live only in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.
- Dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) may be seen occasionally in the bays and rarely on the reefs. Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) are even more rarely seen.
- Raccoon (Procyon lotor). You'll find their tracks in the drier portions of the mangrove and along the tide line. The raccoons here are markedly smaller than those found on the mainland, but they are not considered a separate subspecies.
- Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). They sometimes wander in among the mangroves, but not outside the canoe trails.
- West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus). Rarely seen, and only in summer, they hang around the edges of the mangroves where sea grasses grow.
- Notably absent: Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) live much farther south in the Keys in less developed areas, especially on Big Pine Key. Nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), among the most commonly seen mammals in Florida, do not live on the Keys. Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi) frequent mangroves, but only around the Everglades.
- White herons of several species. They're often hard to tell apart, but look for the great egret (Casmerodius albus), the smaller snowy egret (Egretta thula), the much smaller cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), and the white form of great blue heron (Ardea herodias).
- Several smaller dark herons, including the little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), tricolored heron (E. tricolor), the green heron (Butorides virescens), black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), and yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea)
- Other wading birds, including the wood stork (Mycteria americana), white ibis (Eudocimus albus), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis), and the normal form of great blue heron (Ardea herodias). There are also some even more exotic birds such as the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja).
- Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga). Often seen among the mangroves with little more than its snake-like head and neck showing as it swims.
- Magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens). Another truly tropical species at home in the Keys.
- Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). You probably saw their nests on the cell-phone towers and towers of high tension power lines on the drive down. You'll sometimes see them fishing in the sea and in the lagoons.
- Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis). Often perch on the mangroves and dive in when they see fish. They fly in single file in a majestic gliding manner.
- Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). Relatively rare in the mangroves. I think it's their heavy, clumsy flight that makes them avoid the close confines of the mangroves. They are very common near the beaches, roosting in trees beside open water. They also fly in single file, like pelicans, but they are a flurry of beating wings and seem barely able to stay airborne.
- Sea birds, such as laughing gulls (Larus atricilla) and least terns (Sternula antillarum antillarum), are abundant around the shores and lagoons. You may also see the rather exotic brown boobies (Sula leucogaster)
- Sting rays (Dasyatis sabina). You sometimes see them lurking on the bottom of the canoe trails.
- Numerous kinds of fry. The mangrove roots provide shelter for young of many species, including tarpon (Megalops atlanticus), snook (Centropomus undecimalis), and many others.
- Great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda). Despite the protection, these predators often come in to hunt among the mangroves. You probably won't see one more than about 18 inches long in these labyrinths.
- Underwater invertebrates. On the roots of the mangroves, below low tide and in the intertidal zone, you will see sponges (don't know the species), and various snails including small conchs (Strombus gigas). There are also numerous species of crabs and shrimp.
- Mangrove tree crabs (Foniopsis cruentata). These small crustaceans live above the water, climbing to the tops of the trees, and even live in the dry portions of the mangrove above the tide line.
- Fiddler crabs. There are actually half a dozen species in Key Largo. In the mangroves, you will most likely see the mangrove fiddler crab (Uca thayeri) or the mudflat fiddler crab (Gelasimus rapax). They burrow into the mud in the intertidal zone and can be seen everywhere at low tide.
- Mangrove water snake (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda). Uncommon in the Keys. Count yourself lucky if you see one.
- Green anole (Anolis carolinensis). Sometimes seen in the drier areas of the mangrove.
- Red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). The most water-tolerant of the three types common to Key Largo, they grow in the subtidal zone on the edges of the mangrove swamp, their roots always at least partially submerged.
- Black mangrove (Avicennia germinans). A little higher up, they grow in places where their roots spend part of each day entirely out of the water.
- White mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa). These plants grow mostly on land, only occasionally inundated by the highest tides.
- Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Fairly common, but mostly nocturnal. The raccoons here are markedly smaller than those found on the mainland.
- Notably absent: Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) live much farther south in the Keys in less developed areas, especially on Big Pine Key. Nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), among the most commonly seen mammals in Florida, do not live on the Keys. Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi) live farther north, around the Everglades.
- White herons of several species nest in the hammocks, but go elsewhere to feed. They're often hard to tell apart, but look for the great egret (Casmerodius albus), the smaller snowy egret (Egretta thula), the much smaller cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), and the white form of great blue heron (Ardea herodias).
- Several smaller dark herons also nest here, including the little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), tricolored heron (E. tricolor), the green heron (Butorides virescens), black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), and yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea).
- Other wading birds that nest in the hammocks include the wood stork (Mycteria americana), white ibis (Eudocimus albus), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), Florida sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pratensis), and the normal form of great blue heron (Ardea herodias).
- Toads. The campgrounds and other lightly developed areas are infested with the giant toad (Bufo marinus), an invader from South America, which is also famous as a major pest in northeastern Australia, where it is called the cane toad.
- Golden-silk spider (Nephila clavipes). Giant webs span the trees in some of the upland hammocks. If you accidentally walk through the web, you hear a loud "twang" as the silk breaks.
- Gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba). Dominant tree in Key Largo's hammocks. It's sometimes called the "tourist tree." Its bark tends to peel, revealing fresh red bark underneath.
- Wild tamarind (Tamarindus indica). That's what the trail is named for, and they are abundant. This is an introduced species, but more welcome than most botanical invaders.
- Cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). The most common palm in southern Florida.
- Strangler fig (Ficus aurea). These start out as epiphytes, growing vine-like appendages down along the trunk of their host tree. They do not parasitize the host, but they grow to embrace the tree they live on, until their "vines" completely engulf and kill it.
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