Just off the Florida Keys, beneath the shifting shades of aquamarine reflected by tropic waters, lies a world of fantastic beauty, the only living coral reef attached to the continental shelf of the United States. It is a world of strange shapes where tiny animals build themselves into trees, fans and plumes or into domes and towers like mosques and minarets. It is a complex world where a host of marine creatures depend upon one another for existence. It is a world of spectacular cruelty, for here man has not eliminated the large predators—the sharks, the barracudas and moray eels. It is also a world rich in color, for the reef dwellers dress themselves with a gaudiness unrivaled on land.
Until recent years this underwater world of the coral reef was the province of only a few human beings: the early, intrepid divers whose interest in its beauty and mystery overcame their fears; the fishermen who put aside their rods to stare at the panorama through glass-bottomed buckets; and the occasional scientist seeking truths in a new field. But since World War II there has been a big change. Now man seems bent on returning to the depths from which he emerged so many eons ago. The sport of skin-diving is luring him beneath the waves and, to abet this yearning for an amphibious state, the federal government and the State of Florida have set aside part of the reefs as the world's first entirely underwater park, a preserve for the skin-diver, the fisherman and the fish watcher.
Called the Pennekamp Coral Reef Preserve, the park is the nation's first official response to man's mass movement toward the sea. It is also a protective measure for the reef's underwater beauty, for while men and women in masks and flippers seek new esthetic sport and danger in the world of the coral reefs, with them have also come despoilers. These are the souvenir hunters who blast the reefs for coral to stock roadside stands or take conchs by the truckload to sell as curios.
In recent years it became apparent to a group of interested individuals that if the coral reefs were to continue as a place of recreation and scientific study a part of them, at least, would have to be protected. After this group and other citizens had shared in the groundwork, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation last March 15 establishing a section of the reefs running parallel to Key Largo as an underwater park.
March 6, 1961
On the following pages SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents a pictorial panorama of this unique preserve. There are parks which include land and water areas, but here is a piece of the Atlantic Ocean, its boundaries marked by buoys and lighthouses, that has been set aside and protected by law in the same manner as any of our public parks on land. Lying only a couple of miles offshore, the new park parallels Key Largo for 21 miles. It varies from three and a half to four and a half miles wide and has an area of 75 square nautical miles. As the area straddles the three-mile limit, the cooperation of the federal government and the State of Florida was necessary to establish the preserve. One of its big assets in terms of recreational use is its accessibility—only an hour's drive from Miami.
Last December 10 some 500 persons assembled for the dedication ceremonies at Tavernier, a small community at the south end of Key Largo. There Ross Leffler, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, on behalf of President Eisenhower, turned the federal part of the park over to the Florida State Board of Parks and Historical Monuments. The state board will be in charge of policing the area and providing facilities for visitors. The then governor, LeRoy Collins, accepted the federal portion on behalf of the State of Florida and announced that the park board had chosen the name Pennekamp Coral Reef Preserve in honor of John Pennekamp, associate editor of the Miami Herald. Governor Collins explained that Mr. Pennekamp had devoted "a large part of his interests, his energy and his influence to the protection and development of the natural resources of our state."
Even before the dedication the state board had begun negotiations for property on Key Largo which will serve as a land base for the ocean park. This base will include an interpretive museum, boat docks and service area. When these facilities are completed, glass-bottomed boats will take visitors out to view the reefs. At present visitors must go in their own boats or hire one of the charter boats which put out from nearby communities on Key Largo.
Geologists say these reefs began forming some 5,000 or 6,000 years ago when the sea came up to its present level. They first came into historical prominence when Spanish galleons sailing by were sometimes wrecked by storms. Ponce de Léon cruised along them, as did English men-of-war, pirate ships and privateers. In the last century the reefs became famous for the ships wrecked there and for the wreckers from Key West who did a thriving business in salvage.
In 1957 Daniel B. Beard, then superintendent of Everglades National Park, called a conference on the preservation of natural resources in south Florida. At that meeting Dr. Gilbert L, Voss of the Marine Laboratory of the University of Miami described the dangers to the reefs posed by the depredations of coral collectors and shell hunters and proposed the establishment of a preserve to protect a part of them. From then on things moved rapidly toward President Eisenhower's proclamation.
The rules and regulations for the new park prohibit the removal of coral or any other depredations to the reefs. Sport and commercial fishing with hook and line are permitted, but net fishing and the use of poisons or electric charges in taking fish are banned. Spearfishing or the possession of spearfishing equipment within the park is prohibited, but skin-diving for photography, for observation and for pleasure is permitted and encouraged.
The park has been staked out on the outer two-thirds of a shallow shelf extending out from Key Largo for six to seven miles. The outer edge of this bank drops off sharply to depths of several hundred feet, and the Florida Current, a section of the Gulf Stream, flows by just beyond the outer reefs.
As the visitor looks out over the surface of the park between Molasses Light and Carysfort Light, he sees an expanse of water varying in color according to the depth, type of bottom and amount of sunlight. The colors are in constant change. Charter fishing boats troll the reefs, and the smaller boats of skin-divers float at anchor. The only surface indications of the beauty that lies beneath are several lines of white breakers where coral patches are almost awash. At Key Largo Dry Rocks a small area of gray, dead coral protrudes above the surface.
In order to map the area we cruised back and forth across the width of the park for two days. Herb Alley's offshore boat was equipped with a box two feet square attached to the stern. As the boat moved slowly over the reefs we watched the marine panorama through the glass bottom of this box. It was like a picture window commanding a submarine view.
Donald R. Moore, marine biologist of the University of Miami's Marine Laboratory, studied the details through the window, occasionally stopping to make notes on his chart. At times he donned mask and flippers and dropped over the side to study special features.
The most spectacular reefs are on the outer edge of the bank, where ragged cliffs of coral plunge into the ocean's depths. Tall, branching staghorn and palm corals rise here in treelike shapes. Sea whips, sea plumes and purple sea fans wave in the eddying water. There are various kinds of Porites coral, including one species that grows in little heads a foot across and is bright green, and another species that forms small, branched knobs or fingers. There is the mighty Montastrea, the biggest coral head of all, which grows to 20 feet high and 20 feet in diameter. There are Agaricia, the lettuce coral; Diploria, the brain coral; Millepora, the stinging coral, which is painful but won't incapacitate you unless you wallow in it; and a host of others.
Reaching into these outer reefs are deep canyons with dark recesses and caves. These are called surge channels, and through them moves the water from the open ocean, bringing food in the form of minute animal life to the creatures that form the living coral. Here one gets the feeling of awe and mystery and beauty that is part of a visit to the larger reefs.
Swimming through this coral forest or lurking in the caves and grottoes are bizarre animals: the angelfish, which seems to have been designed purely as an ornament; the striped sergeant majors; the various kinds of parrot fish; the squirrelfish; the odd triggerfish; the little clown fish in their yellow and white costumes; the ridiculous boxfish, the blue tang; and others in an endless and colorful array.
Then there are the larger members of the community, the missile-shaped barracudas, the groupers that make such delicious chowder, the eagle ray that grows to six or seven feet across and is spotted black and white on the dorsal surface. Fairly common in this new park are the great sea turtles—the green, the loggerhead and the hawksbill. We saw a big green turtle through our picture window. Occasional sharks move through the park, and the dangerous moray eels linger in rocky caverns.
Porpoises frequently roam the park. At one point we paused to watch a school of them leap about us. Behind the outer reefs lies an undulating plain that varies in appearance according to the depth of the water. In some places magnificent reefs are found a considerable distance back from the outer edge. Some of these, such as Key Largo Dry Rocks, reach the surface and give rise to breakers. Scientists have described the Key Largo Dry Rocks as one of the most beautiful submerged islands of coral in North America.
Coral patches and large, solitary coral heads are found mainly in the central portion of the park. The landward side of the area is mostly grassy bottom but occasionally it is broken by coral patches such as those at Mosquito Bank and Basin Hill Shoals. Even boats of the shallowest draft must proceed with caution at Basin Hill Shoals, for here the coral formations rise almost to the surface.
Watching through our picture window, we passed over wide areas of grassy plain. Sometimes it was all turtle grass and sometimes a mixture of turtle grass and the finer manatee grass. When the water became deeper, usually at more than 20 feet, we passed over expanses of rippling white sand. These desert areas of the park are featureless except for furrows and holes made by animals that live beneath the sand, the burrowing sea urchins and marine snails.
This first underwater park has many attractions in the fields of science and recreation but, above all, it is blessed with a spectacular beauty quite unlike the scenic wonders in any of the nation's land parks. As soon as the Florida State Board of Parks and Historical Monuments completes the facilities at the land base this beauty will be available to any visitor for the price of a modest boat fare.
CORAL REEF PRESERVE AREA
THE WONDERS OF A CORAL REEF GO ON DISPLAY OFF KEY LARGO
CORMORANTS ON MOLASSES LIGHT
STAGHORN AND STINGING CORAL
KEY LARGO DRY ROCKS
STAGHORN AND STINGING CORAL