After a leisurely, 30-minute boat ride in Biscayne Bay, we were out of sight of land. The captain stopped in the crystal clear waters and barked, "Now get off my boat!"
It was time to go see what we came for – the spectacular shallow-water reefs of Biscayne National Park.
Just an hour's drive from Miami's neon skyline, the park offers snorkelers the chance to observe the landscape that inspired the area's tropical palette. The 173,000-acre national park encompasses magnificent mangrove shorelines, two-thirds of Biscayne Bay, the northernmost Florida Keys and the northern portion of the world's third largest coral reef system. Just within view of the city skyline, Biscayne National Park was established in 1968 as Biscayne National Monument due to developmental pressures that threatened its fragile ecosystems.
On a good day – a sunny one without much wind – the water is calm and clear, perfect for seeing the colorful parrot fish, the striped sergeant majors, schools of shimmery grunts and the ancient corals, with their space-age looking shapes and cartoon colors. Some of the smaller gems are as compelling as their names: flamingo tongue snails, Christmas tree worms and mermaid's wineglasses. The park boasts giant brain coral, swaying sea fans and unique areas where the endangered Elkhorn coral thrive.
Many of these fragile animal colonies sit in such shallow water, snorkelers have to be careful not to accidentally touch them while swimming among them. Weather permitting, and when there is sufficient demand, the park’s concessioner offers daily snorkel trips.
"It's almost like a little city," said park ranger Astrid Rybeck – if cities were painted in electric blue, fluorescent yellow, rusty orange and light lavender, with residents dressed to match.
Snorkelers should be on the lookout for the invasive and showy lionfish. They look lacy and charming, but their spines are venomous. The park has an active research and eradication program to keep the populations of these Indian Ocean natives in check. Park rangers report the removal of more than 1,000 lionfish since finding none as recently as April 2009.
"They can clear an area of reef of small fish pretty quickly," Rybeck said.
Biscayne National Park also has a Maritime Heritage Trail. This unique underwater archeological trail showcases six of the more than 50 shipwrecks in the park. Due to their depths, most of the wrecks are suitable only for scuba divers, but some are in 12 feet of water or less. The park’s concessioner may offer ranger-led snorkel tours in the calm, summer months.
If You Go
- Make reservations with the park’s concessioner, Biscayne Underwater Park, Inc. On weekends, the trips often fill up. Call 305-230-1100, or reserve online at biscayneunderwater.com.
- Watch the weather. Windy conditions make the trip much less fun, and for safety, the boat doesn't go out in thunderstorms.
- The concession also rents kayaks and canoes if you'd like to explore the mangrove shoreline on your own.
- Convoy Point, the park’s headquarters, is home to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center and Gallery, picnic areas, a short interpretive trail and scheduled ranger-led tours. On windy days, the waters around Convoy Point are popular with windsurfers.
- The park also encompasses the seven remaining buildings of Stiltsville. These stilt homes built on Biscayne are closed to the public without special permits.
- There is no fee to enter the park, but there is a charge to camp on Elliott Key or Boca Chita Key.
- Check out the park's website for more information.
Susannah Nesmith is a freelance writer based in Miami.