Saturday, August 14, 2004

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. About 65 miles south of our home in Miami Springs, on the island of Key Largo, is John Pennekamp State Coral Reef Park. When our son, Walter, and his wife, Morgan, visited us this past week, we drove to the park to go snorkeling.

The island of Key Largo is one of the Florida Keys, and is the first shiny bead on a necklace of islands that sweeps off the peninsula, ending with Key West just 90 miles from Cuba. The park is on the Atlantic side of the island, immediately adjacent to Key Largo Coral Reef National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary covers approximately 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps. The government established it to preserve a portion of the only living coral reef in the continental United States.

A concessionaire runs a number of activities at the park, and among them is snorkeling. (Canoing, kayaking, scuba diving, sailing and camping are other activities.) On the concessionaire's website, one can read about the snorkeling and even print out a coupon. We rented all the equipment we needed, and stepped aboard a flat-decked pontoon boat with several other families, and took a fifteen or twenty minute ride out to a particular reef called White Bank Dry Rocks.

Although Hurricane Charley was on his way up from Cuba, none of the winds had reached us by Wednesday morning as we anchored next to the reef and prepared to jump overboard. Walter and I had become SCUBA qualified while he was in the Boys Scouts in high school, but it was still a little intimidating to Carol and me as we looked down at the water, held our face masks to our face, and stepped out. But the water was pleasant and our buoyancy vests kept us afloat with no effort. We only needed to relax a little, stretch out face down, and look into another world.

It was simply beautiful, and so many fish! All kinds and colors. Despite living in Miami for most of my life, I am a novice at this, and I can't begin to name everything we saw. But there were grouper, snappper, angel-fish, barracuda (!), fish with bright colors, little ones, big ones, fat ones, skinny ones. All kinds of coral grew, and there were sea fans, sea urchins, and other living things: I often could not tell whether I was looking at flora or fauna. But it was all good. How can one look at all of this (a more appropriate verb would be "behold" all of this), and not ask how such beauty and complexity happened to be there. How could it be just a matter of chance? How could anyone think that?

The 90 minutes in the water went by fast, but for Carol and me, it was just enough.

When we returned to the mainland, we went into the Visitor's Center, where there are several aquaria that are very well maintained and documented. There we saw many of the varieties of coral, fish and other living creatures that we saw on the reef itself, and we were able to read about what we had seen. I asked one of the people behind the desk whether there was a biologist who maintained the aquaria, and I happened to ask that question to the biologist himself. He told me that he had retrieved all of the specimens in the tanks from the reefs in the park and that none of the specimens had been purchases. He said he was actually growing some very rare coral in several of the tanks. He hoped to get a license to restock some of the reefs with the coral he is able to grow.

One especially interesting tank had a green eel in it, about two feet long. On the eel was a colorful shrimp who walked up and down the eel's back, pausing now and then to pick at the eel with its long, thin legs. According to the written narrative adjacent to the tank, the shrimp was a "cleaner shrimp" and lives with the eel in a symbiotic relationship. The biologist told me that he had to dive deep to catch such a shrimp, and that he had caught several. He said that the one in the tank with the eel "put on the best show".

All of it was a great show.

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