By Terry Tomalin

Six miles off Key Largo, a dive boat bobbed in four-foot seas. A dozen scuba divers, a few turning the color of the green Keys water, waited nervously for their chance to hit the water.

"This is a marine sanctuary," the captain said for the second time since leaving the dock. "You can look but don't touch."

The divers listened intently. For some, this was their first open-water dive. For most, it was their first dive on the only living coral reef in the continental United States.

"Remember, safety comes first," the captain repeated. "If we think you are an unsafe diver, you become a snorkeler."

With that, pairs of divers rolled backward off the boat into the 80-degree water. When the air bubbles cleared, a garden of coral appeared 40 feet below.

The limestone terraces of French reef, covered with hard and soft corals of yellow-brown and green, climbed toward the sunlight. Tiny fish, with hues of blue, yellow and green, scurried for cover as the divers approached the reef.

The hard corals, including the giant brain coral, were alive hundreds of years ago when pirates still roamed the Florida Straits. Living, invertebrate animals with hard, stony skeletons, these coral polyps live in colonies. When they die, their skeletons provide the base for more of their kind to grow.

Nearby, soft corals of purple, red and green swayed back and forth with the waves like trees rocking in the wind. These sea fans and sea whips, with their delicate system of branches, are easily damaged by an errant scuba fin.

Nearby, a neon-blue parrotfish nibbled on the mass of coral. Its cousin, the stoplight parrotfish, a conglomeration of blue, green, yellow and pink, shared in the feast. Coral-gnawing fish such as these produce tons of sand per acre in the course of a year.

A three-foot barracuda rounded the corner of the reef and sent a school of yellow-tail snapper scattering. Another predator, the moray eel, slid back into its hole when confronted by the divers.

By the end of the 40-minute trip down under, the divers had seen a part of Florida most people don't know exists. It's the realm of manta rays, lobsters and the queen conch. It's home to hundreds of species of fish, both large and small. And they are all dependent on one thing: the reef.

Both federal and state laws protect the coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Their combined boundaries cover hundreds of miles of coral reef, sea grass beds and mangrove swamps. The best diving and snorkeling is found three to six miles offshore.

Located just 50 miles south of Miami on U.S. 1, the area is visited by thousands of scuba divers, snorkelers and boaters each year. This heavy human traffic takes its toll. Although the coral looks tough, the exterior living tissue is easily damaged by anchors and careless divers and snorkelers. That is why park official insist that vistors take only pictures and leave with only memories.

When you go...
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
102601 Overseas Highway (MM 102.5)
Key Largo, FL 33037
P.O. Box 1560
(305) 451-6300