by Barbara Ann Weibel at Hole In The Donut Travel
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the country’s first ever undersea park, was established to protect and preserve a portion of the only living coral reef in the continental United States. In combination with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the underwater preserves cover approximately 178 nautical miles, are 25 miles long, and extend three miles out into the Atlantic. While the inland areas of the park offer hiking through tropical vegetation and woodland hammocks, it is the submerged coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps that most visitors come to see.
Concession services within the park offer snorkel and dive trips to the reef, where visitors marvel at giant brain corals, delicate star corals, sea fans, sponges, shrimp, crabs, turtles, lobsters, eels, and nearly 600 species of colorful fish. Even visitors who choose not to get in the water can enjoy an up-close view of the underwater gardens from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat. Motorboat, canoe, kayak, and snorkeling gear rentals are also available, and a five-star PADI facility offers instruction for anyone interested in becoming a certified diver.
After visiting the reef, many visitors relax on one of two lovely strips of sand at John Pennekamp, Far Beach or Cannon Beach. Both have pure white coral sand and are shaded by graceful coconut palms and sea grape, as well as offering changing rooms, rest rooms, barbeque pits, and picnic tables. The park’s Visitor Center, located adjacent to Cannon Beach, boasts a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium with many live examples of creatures found on the reef. Forty-seven camping sites are also available, although reservations are strongly recommended, as sites fill up fast, especially in season.
Photos courtesy of Barbara Weibel