The second location I visited was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater state park in the United States.
Established in 1960, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is off the cost of Key Largo, Fla. to protect part of the only living coral reef in the United States. Pennekamp together with the adjacent Florida Key Marine Sanctuary, help to preserve over 178 nautical square miles of ocean, coral reefs and mangrove swamps according to pennekamppark.com.
While the park offers many activities including kayaking, birding and hiking, I donned a wetsuit, snorkel and mask and headed out to sea for a 4 hour snorkeling trip. The first portion of the trip led me to a part of the reef called Greason Rocks.
When I first arrived, a low tide let the rocks climb out of the ocean making the thought of swimming around seem rather daunting especially knowing that it’s illegal to touch the bottom in the park. Luckily, the fear disappeared when I slid into the water and started seeing fish.
As I approached the rocks and the coral came into view the fish became more and more abundant. I was able to see and take pictures of two of my favorite fish, a barracuda and a parrot fish. It was my first time seeing either one in the wild. The experience was one I will never forget.
Before I knew it an hour had passed and it was time to get back on the boat and go to the next location.
The second place on the trip, Key Largo Dry Rocks, was even more impressive than Greason Rocks. The reef in this particular location are orrented in a hand shape with tall rocks as finger and 20 to 30 ft. deep ridges between. Near the center of the hand lay one of the coolest things I had ever seen: approximately 25 ft. under the water stands an 8.6 ft tall Jesus statue known as “Christ of the Abyss.”
According to fla-keys.com, Italian scuba entrepreneur Egidi Cressithe donated the 4,000 lb. bronze statue to the Underwater Society of America in 1961. It’s the third bronze casting of sculptor Guido Galletti’s “II Cristo Degli Abissi” to be sunk below the waves.
On the way back to the dock the captain of the boat was kind enough to take us through the mangrove swamps, offering a view of Florida that was a nice change compared to the endless miles of beach and sand I often associate with Florida.
Seeing the amount of the life that exists underwater firsthand is something that was truly life-changing for me. Although I always heard that the ocean floor was rich with life, seeing it in person was different. If you ever get the chance to go to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, definitely take advantage of the opportunity. If you can, plan for more than one day because one isn’t nearly enough to experience all it has to offer.