By: Shayne Benowitz
South Florida is flush with unique natural beauty. As the tip of a peninsula—surrounded by the salty emerald green and aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Bay, Biscayne Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean—South Florida is as much about water as it is about land. This notion is perhaps no more evident than during a trip to Biscayne National Park. At 172,000 acres, 95% of the park is underwater making it the largest marine park in the national system. For visitors, this means there’s a watery wonderland ripe for exploration. Since the majority of the park is accessible only by boat, it also means that a certain level of planning is required to optimize your visit.
The park’s entrance at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center is located in Homestead, less than an hour drive south of South Beach down the Florida Turnpike. This is known as Convoy Point where you’ll find boat concessioners, a museum, and a one-quarter mile Jetty Trail to explore while looking out onto the southernmost portion of Biscayne Bay and to Elliott Key, which is the northernmost key in the Florida Keys chain that stretches south for roughly 150 miles.
Biscayne National Park is actually a confluence of four distinctive and flourishing ecosystems: the mangroves, Biscayne Bay, the Florida Keys, and the coral reef. The first thing you may notice at Convoy Point is a dense tangle of leafy green trees along the shoreline that appear to be almost growing out of the water. These are the salt tolerant mangroves. The clusters along Biscayne National Park’s shoreline are amongst the longest continual stretches of mangroves on Florida’s east coast. Their tangle of prop and drop roots play a significant role in the nesting and breeding habitats of juvenile fish and birds, as well as in stabilizing Florida’s shoreline by collecting sediment.
Guided Canoe Trips
One of the best ways to experience the mangroves firsthand is through a guided kayak or canoe trip along the coast. You’re welcome to bring your own, or during the winter months (typically January through April) a variety of guided 2-3 hour and all-day trips are available, most of which are free. Reservations are required and trips are subject to cancellation due to weather. As you kayak, keep your eyes peeled for an abundance of wildlife, including manatee, dolphins, cassiopeia upside-down jellyfish, and even juvenile nurse sharks and stingrays, not to mention tropical migratory birds. The mangroves form a dense canopy with several narrow paths to explore by kayak. If you’re an advanced paddler, it’s possible to traverse the seven-mile expanse of the bay to Elliott Key.
While gliding across the shallow waters, notice the patches of seagrass interspersed on the sandy hardbottom. This is part of Biscayne Bay’s backcountry ecosystem, an important nesting and feeding ground for 70% of the area’s commercially important fish. This shallow estuary is actually a mixture of fresh and salt water. There’s an abundance of soft coral and sponges on the hardbottom. And the seagrass is a habitat for mollusks like the conch and the tulip snail, and crustaceans, such as spiny lobster and stone crabs.
Elliott Key is the largest key in Biscayne National Park and is considered to be the northernmost island of the ancient coral rock that comprises the Florida Keys today. Although other keys extend north, such as Sands and Boca Chita, they’re considered transitional keys, which means they’re made partly of coral rock and partly of sand shoals characteristic of the barrier islands further north. Elliott Key is accessible by ferry from a private concessioner within the park. Of course, if you have your own boat, there’s no limit to what you can discover here.
The boundary of Biscayne National Park is encompassed by the National Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses 2,800 square-nautical miles of protected waters. Here you’ll find a portion of the third largest coral reef in the world. Teeming with more than 200 species of tropical fish, it’s considered one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Another world unfolds under the water’s surface where rainbow parrotfish, blue tang, and sergeant majors intermingle in the coral canyons while a loggerhead sea turtle swims lazily through the current.
Snorkeling is ideal
The only way to experience the reef is by boat and options with the park concessioner are plenty. Snorkeling is an ideal way to experience the reef for first-timers and trips depart twice daily. For those who would rather stay on board, the park also has a glass bottom boat tour. If you happen to be a certified scuba diver, then a private charter can be arranged for your diving enjoyment to a number of locations along the reef. Just remember that all trips are weather permitting and require a reservation. It’s a good idea to call ahead of time to make sure that trips will be running on any given day. The park’s concessioner can be reached at 305-230-1100.
The living coral reef is not the only underwater attraction at Biscayne National Park. The shallow waters of Biscayne Bay have caused their share of shipwrecks through the years. These wrecks make for exciting diving throughout an artificial reef. The Maritime Heritage Trail inside the park consists of six shipwrecks that span a century from 1878 with the Arratoon Apcar a 1,480-ton iron hulled steamship to 1966 with the Mandalay a 112-foot long steel hulled schooner. There is a rich history of shipwrecks along the shallow shoreline of South Florida and the Florida Keys, and exploring one is like participating in an underwater archeological dig.
Maritime Heritage Trail
The Maritime Heritage Trail is still a work in progress to make it more accommodating for public diving and snorkeling. Nautical mapping and the installation of markers and mooring balls are currently underway. In the summertime, the park offers guided tours to these sites. Aside from the Mandalay wreck, which is in shallow water, most sites are ideal for scuba divers.
There is so much to explore and experience at Biscayne National Park that it can’t be done in one day. For your first visit, the best option is to select one activity that you’re most interested in and return another time to explore further. However, if you’re a true outdoorsman or wilderness girl, camping is an excellent option from November to May at Elliott Key or Boca Chita Key. Be prepared to rough it, though. Campgrounds are only accessible by boat, so there are no RV options. Whether it’s a half-day surrounded by the park’s tranquil, crystal clear waters or a full-on camping excursion, you’re sure to discover something you’ve never seen before, and you’ll return to solid land refreshed and rejuvenated.
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