Sailing in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Published on October 11th, 2013 | by Charu Suri
10 Sailing in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Two new parents, a toddler and a glass-bottom boat.
That was how the first morning of our Florida Keys vacation began, in Key Largo. Setting sail to get a closer peek at the third largest coral reef in the world is not a bad way to start a vacation. Although it is hurricane season, there are no ominous clouds; a clean sheet of pale cloudless blue smiles at us.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is popular among the diving and snorkeling crowd. The first undersea park in the United States boasts a pale white sunken algae-coated statue of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms, and is extremely popular with divers. Unlike the Belize version (that statue of Christ is accessible only by deep-sea divers), the Key Largo version welcomes snorkelers and is an aquatic landmark that everyone—including the Lonely Planet Guidebook– seems to know about.
The “Spirit of Pennekamp”
Mangroves flank a narrow creek
Our skipper gives us the scoop
We opted for a glass-bottom boat simply because it is the more prudent thing to do when you have a 15 month-old baby. Snorkeling would have been beyond gorgeous, but my toddler gets strawberry pink when exposed to more than a few continuous minutes of sunshine, aloe or no aloe.
The docent at the front desk seemed to agree.
“The snorkeling trips are at least four hours long,” he said, cautiously eyeing Erika, who was fascinated by some brightly-colored floaties in the store. “You may just want to stick with the boat.”
But any trip that gives you some insight into the breadth of John Pennekamp State Park is a good idea; like the sunken statue of Christ with peaceful outstretched arms, the Park is a protective figure. This is the only living coral reef in the country, after all. During our two-hour glass-bottom boat ride, Spirit of Pennekamp, into the middle of the ocean, I saw rare brain coral, sparkling violet wrasse swimming past us like brightly-clad chorus girls, richly-tinted parrot fish, and ribbons of polyps and coral branches.
We took the trip at 9:15 am, and there were only two other people signed up for the excursion, so we pretty much had the entire boat to ourselves. Sailing past brown, red and white mangroves (I couldn’t tell which was which), we quickly switched from a small creek-like view to full-blown ocean, when the boat picked up speed. When we were out in the middle of the ocean, we saw over sized pelicans sitting resolutely on poles, seagulls swooping up and down and birds plunging into the ocean like yo-yos.
Snorkeler Katherine Wieland examines the Christ of the Abyss statue in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Fla. This nine-foot-tall, 4,000 pound replica of a similar statue, located in the waters off the coast of Italy is submerged in 25 feet of water at Key Largo Dry Rocks. Photo by Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau
A beach at John Pennekamp State Park
It was hard not to feel excited as we felt the salt breeze on our skin. Erika loved the glass-bottom boat ride and kept pointing to the various colored fishes we saw: Blue! Green! Yellow! I felt as though I was reading her a book by Dr. Seuss.
On a clear day (and there are too many too count here), you’ll see endangered sea turtles, which are making a comeback in Florida, and more fish than you’ll have bargained for. As I was on the deck watching Erika enjoy herself and enjoying the salty breeze, I realized that this was possibly the best spot in the world to practice fishing.
Bryan, our skipper, agrees. “This is the best place in the world to hook and cook,” he chuckles, adding that you’re not allowed to fish in the park itself. But Key Largo and Islamorada are perhaps the best spots in the world for grouper. There is a sense of great relaxation here, and no one seems to be in any great hurry. A far cry from schizophrenic cab drivers, elbow-shoving subway riders and steely skyscrapers.
John Pennekamp State Park is a great idea for any naturalist and lover of the outdoors. Glass-bottom boat tours are $24 per person.