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F l o r i d a E c o A d v e n t u r e s

By Matthew W. Beale

Florida's Fragile Coral Reefs

The Coral Reefs of Florida
Florida's coral reefs - the most significant of such formations in the United States - were formed between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, during a period known as the Wisconsin Ice Age. The reef is not known for rapid expansion, boasting one to sixteen feet per millenium as an approximate rate of growth.

Reefs are composed of a diverse species of corals, which form several types of structures, feed and reproduce in different ways, but have one irreducible thing in common: they are unique and delicate structures that are an exquisitely beautiful asset that people should savor, derive tranquility and pleasure from, and let grow unfettered for future generations to enjoy.

Biscayne National Park
Biscayne is located in the southern part of Dade County, in Homestead, Florida, and is made up of the waters of Southern Biscayne Bay, Northern Card Sound as well as the northernmost islands of The Keys. The John Pennekamp State Park defines the area's southern border. The reef areas are located approximately nine miles off the mainland coast, and, as is the case with most sites, must be reached by boat. According to rangers, the most popular reef is Ball Buoy, which is a collection of smaller patches of coral that is endlessly surprising and delightful. There is also Elkhorn Reef, named after the type of coral that dominates its structure, which is generally known as an excellent site for those who are not as experienced in snorkeling.

Along with the intriguing Schooner Wreck, and a deep green forest of Mangroves, there is a full menu of reef sites in the park. You can find the Park from US1 by driving south to Homestead, and turning left on SW 328th Street (North Canal Drive), and continuing nine miles to the entrance which is on the left.

Further information can be obtained by calling the park information number at 305/230-1100, or 305/230-7275 to speak with a ranger.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Pennekamp is situated approximately three miles off the coast of Key Largo, at mile marker 102.5 on the ocean side. Adjacent to the Key Largo National Maritime Sanctuary, Pennekamp is the nation's first underwater park. There is a plentitude of sites in the area. French Reef boasts of a vast, watery maze of canyons, gullies and cliffs. It also features The Benwood, which is one of the most dived shipwrecks in the world. Molasses Reef's coral include towering tongue-and-groove formations, and share their underwater phantasmagoria with a vast host of other sea life. Carysfort Reef-- which is located in the Sanctuary in about 25 feet of water-- is a sloping wall of divergent types of coral that sweeps down to a sandy bottom at a 75 foot depth. There are several artificial reefs in the waters off the coast of Key Largo that would be of interest to visitors. One mile south of Molasses Reef is the site of The Duane, which was towed from Staten Island to its current site and sunk in 1987. The Duane is 328 feet long, and has already taken on the character of the area waters, inhabited now by coral, algae and a plethora of other life, including large pelagic fishes, as well as the occasional sea turtle or sting ray. The historic ships The Bibb and The USS Spiegel Grove have also been added to the artificial reef program, and are contributing more and more to the beautiful underwater environment available in the region.

A gift to the Underwater Society of America, which is now a permanent addition to the waters off Key Largo, adds a unique dimension to any visit. Just before the shallow reef areas of Key Largo Dry Docks is "Christ of The Abyss," a famous underwater statue placed there in 1965 that is a replica of Christ of the Abysses off Genoa in the Mediterranean. Regardless of religious beliefs, the outstretched arms of the figure, in this beautiful, deep blue setting, should set the perfect tone for the visitor's time in a paradise.

Pennekamp, being an underwater park, is of course accessible by boat. Locals are quick to remind, however, that if you cannot bring your own boat, there is a long list of area charters that will be happy to accommodate. Additional information can be obtained by calling the park information line at 305/451-1303 or the Marine Sanctuary at 305/852-7717.

Alligator Reef
Further south along the Keys lies a reef named after the wreck of a nineteenth century ship, the Alligator. Located near Islamorada, Florida, the Alligator assumed the identity of Caryford Reef, which it became part of in 1822 when it ran aground there. The wreck is an archaeological site, replete with timbers, ballast stones, and the occasional artifact that lend some light on both the life and the unique history of the ship itself, which was a schooner built for the suppression of the slave trade.

The marker for the reef is the landmark Alligator Reef Lighthouse, which was built in 1873. Alligator's waters are known for great barracudas, lobster holes, as well as damselfish, puffer fish and yellow stingrays, and of course elkhorn coral. Surge channels have largely cut the reef, which is in 11 to 23 feet of water, and there are sandy plains that separate its different areas. The wreck itself can still be seen, and should make a fantastic backdrop for the adventuresome underwater photographer.

Additional information can be obtained by calling Capt. Scuba at 305/664-8934, or by going to his World Wide Web site at

Looe Key
Located in the lower sweep of the Keys, southwest of Big Pine, lies another beautiful area named after a naval wreck, Looe Key. The key earned its name after the British frigate H.M.S. Looe sunk there in 1744, leaving ballast stones that exquisitely haunt the area, now a National Maritime Sanctuary.

The reef itself is in typically shallow waters, but the sheer beauty of the water itself is unrivaled, or so say the long time divers to the site. In addition to the bank reef itself, and patch reefs, the area is graced with beautiful seagrass beds and sand flats. Notable reef life includes sergeant majors, barracudas, spiny lobsters, crabs and the queen conch.

There is a wide selection of transport available, with launches running between Marathon and Sugarloaf Keys to the sanctuary. Additional information can be obtained by calling the Looe Key Dive Resort at 305/872-2215.

Fort Jefferson National Monument and Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is located 69 miles west of Key West, and reigns sovereign over seven small islands within its 100 square mile area. Garden Key holds Dry Tortugas' chief resident, however, a structure with walls fifty feet high and eight feet thick known as Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fortification in the Western World. The beauty of Dry Tortugas lured Ponce De Leon, who is historically credited with its discovery in 1513. That lure, which extended over the years through trade, both legitimate and clandestine, and the US establishment of Fort Jefferson in the nineteenth century, continues today with its many visitors who hail from ports around the world.

The reef's southeastern end has banks that are said to be have been formed by the wave energy of mild summer trade winds. The northern area of the reef, formed by the intense energy of winter storms, appear largely as massive coral buttresses. In between are shallow flats populated with lush areas of mangrove, sea-grape, sea-lavender, sea-oats, and bay cedar. Notable stars in the fauna community include the Caribbean manatee and the Loggerhead Turtle, as well as the queen of the seagrass beds, the queen conch.

Public transportation is available by either boat or seaplane from Key West and the lower keys. There are several small, primitive campsites available. Additional information can be obtained by calling the Site Supervisor at 305/242-7700.