The Keys: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
I slip on my fins, adjust my mask, fiddle with my snorkel and drop into the wilderness known as the Atlantic Ocean. When the bubbles clear I’m face to face with a fish as long as my arm. A barracuda.
Some people consider the barracuda the tiger of the sea and instinctively shiver. Not me. I’ve been swimming among them since I was a boy growing up in South Florida. They show me their teeth and I show them mine. Anyway, our agreement is that nobody gets hurt.
The barracuda turns and swims away. Me, too. It’s another day on South Florida’s great reef, which stretches from just offshore from Miami to about 70 miles past Key West. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, my favorite section, was the first undersea park in the U.S.
Pennekamp, named for an environmentally conscious Miami newspaper editor, is our Grand Canyon, a place of clear-water wonders, where fish swim and lobsters crawl and colorful living organisms make up the reef. Taking advantage requires effort. The least adventurous view the reef from glass-bottom boats. Others strap on air tanks and drop overboard. I’m a snorkel guy. I breathe through a tube while swimming slowly at the water’s surface. All I have to do is look down at the magnificence.
In Key Largo, it’s as easy to find a guide who will take you to the reef as it is to find a slice of pizza. I usually reserve a spot on one of the tour boats that departs from Pennekamp a half dozen times a day, weather permitting. For $29.95 plus another 10 bucks or so for equipment rental, I’m ready to stare down a barracuda.
Forgive me, but I feel sorry for Keys visitors who pass up the opportunity to see our Grand Canyon. I love everything about the Keys – the party atmosphere, the fresh seafood, the Key lime pie and the spectacular tropical plants – but I was raised to believe it’s the underwater world where the magic happens.
In the current, I’m surrounded by a half dozen rambunctious yellowtail snapper, which under different circumstances I would enjoy seeing on a dinner plate. But not now. Not here. They swim around me as if they are as curious about the big lug as I am about them.
Under us, cavorting on the bottom, is an even larger school of my favorite member of the damsel family. They’re the size of my palm and graced with black vertical bars on their yellow flanks. Sergeant major, they’re called. They’re familiar friends.
I’ve loved watching them since I was a fingerling myself. If you grow up in Florida, as I did, and have the right parent, swimming in the ocean starts early. My dad, an awesome long-distance swimmer, enjoyed his twice-a-week mile-long swim along the beach when I was a boy. When I was old enough, I joined him. Wearing a mask and snorkel, I grabbed his swimming trunks and held on as he breast-stroked through those sergeant majors, jack crevalle, pompano and yellow grunts. We saw leopard rays and the occasional grinning barracuda. My dad is long gone, but six decades later I remember him when I swim with the fishes.
At Pennekamp, we’re three miles from shore at the famous Dry Rocks Reef, so named because the landward section sometimes pokes out of the water on low tide. A dozen snorkelers, me included, go exploring. We know enough not to touch or step on a reef – captain Jorge Ruiz laid down the law before we jumped overboard – because they are not only fragile but alive. We see giant brain coral and elkhorn coral, Venus sea fans and reef squid. We see mangrove snapper, blue tang and Bermuda chub. And just in case you’re wondering, the rainbow parrotfish lives up to its name.
Where are the sharks? Visitors sometimes see them, usually harmless nurse sharks, but sometimes larger critters with teeth that make a snorkeler’s heart go pitty pat. Two things. One: you’re in the wilderness, and anything can happen. Two: I worry about driving my vehicle on the Overseas Highway more than hungry bull sharks.
Up ahead, coming into focus, is the famous Christ of the Abyss. It’s an 8 1/2 –foot, two-ton bronze statue of Jesus in 25 feet of water. A replica of a statue in the Mediterranean, it was donated to Pennekamp in 1966.
I hover over the algae-covered statue while my ever-present friends, the sergeant majors and yellowtail snappers, surround me.
I’m one of those easily impressed Florida boys. For me it doesn’t get better than this.
When you go…
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
102601 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo, Fla., 33037