Florida: Florida Keys – John Pennekamp State Park

Beautiful corals reefs just off the Florida Keys shoreline

During our stay in the Florida Keys we decided to spend a few days in our motor home at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo in the Florida Keys.

Established in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first undersea park in the United States. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, cover approximately 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps. The park extends 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean and is approximately 25 miles in length. These areas were established to protect and preserve a portion of the only living coral reef in the continental United States. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 14, 1972.

The camp grounds at the State Park are great and are only feet away from the ocean. The only thing we didn’t like was the No See Ums sometimes known as biting midges, biting gnats or sand flies. They are mighty pesky, but once you know they are around you can manage them much in the same way as mosquitoes. Dealing with bugs is all part of being in Florida! The only other thing hanging around our campsite were some very large iguanas, but we saw those as a good thing as they kept control of other pesky creatures and insects.

We arrived at the campsite mid-afternoon so there was not a great deal still open in terms of activities. Wanting to make the most of what was left of the day we broke out the snorkels and headed down to the beach. The beach area at John Pennekamp State Park is very sheltered and ideal for family swimming, so it was nice to have a dip in the ocean to end the day. We did have our snorkeling equipment but to be honest there is not too much to see close to shore, you really have to head out to the reefs a little way out to sea.

On the second day of our stay we decided to explore the Park a bit more. The two main activities available were kayaking through the mangroves inlets and going out to explore the reef. We decided to do both, which is very possible in a day.

First up was a kayak trip out into the mangroves. We passed through the narrow channels between the mangroves, luckily no alligators or crocodiles live around this area, but there were sure to be snakes around so we didn’t want to get into the water. After an hour or so we just about done in and headed back into to rest up before our snorkel trip out to the reef.

Paddling through the mangrove lagoon

In the afternoon we took advantage of the calm weather conditions out at sea, the waves being less than 1 foot high, and went out on a snorkel tour of the reef. The main reef areas are a few miles out at sea, but the reef is in shallow waters, only being 7 or 8 feet down even at low tide. The boat dropped us about 40 feet from the reef and we all snorkeled out in the clear waters. The sea life was stunning with large schools of brightly colored fish swimming in and among the polyps of the coral. There is a huge variety of coral and fish to see. Laura who had not really snorkeled tried her best and got to see some of the fish. We were really lucky to see several barracuda and sharks. Karen and Jack got within a few feet of a 6 foot Bull Shark, which are can be deadly, but fortunately our group was large enough to scare them away. I also got to swim close-up to a sting ray. The only real danger in the water were jellyfish, not so much the plate sized moon jellyfish, but the smaller but prolifically tentacled Portuguese Man-of-War which bear a very nasty sting. Karen and Emily did get see one but stayed well clear. This was an absolutely marvelous experience and is a rare opportunity in the mainland United States. If you are in the Florida Keys or South Florida it is well worth the effort to go John Pennekamp State Park.

Getting a bit chilly on the journey back home

Beautiful sunset

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