Monday, December 20, 2010

Nation's first underwater park celebrates its 50th birthday

America's first underwater park turns 50 this Saturday, and Florida Keys visitors can celebrate with free admission and an expo featuring a presentation by renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, about 60 miles south of Miami, offers nature trails and exhibits, guided canoe and kayak tours through a mangrove swamp, and a visitors center with a recently refurbished saltwater aquarium. But the biggest draw is the continental USA's only barrier reef, accessible via snorkeling, scuba and glass bottom boat tours. The reef's marquee attraction: a bronze, coral-encrusted Christ of the Abyss statue, four miles offshore and anchored about 25 feet below the surface.

A half century ago, Key Largo-based photographer Stephen Frink told the Miami Herald, "nobody was thinking about protecting the ocean because not many people put their head under the water with a facemask."
The Florida park -which served as a stage set for the popular TV show Flipper - inspired underwater preservation elsewhere, and "as Pennekamp succeeded with artificial reef programs, mooring buoys, repopulation of corals and other initiatives to enhance the specific environment, other places started to get smart,'' Frink said.

Today, the park draws more than 700,000 visitors a year. Saturday's birthday celebration includes children's activities and an evening boat parade, and several lodgings, restaurants and tour companies are offering anniversary discounts.


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