Just off the Florida Keys, beneath the shifting shades of aquamarine reflected by tropic waters, lies a world of fantastic beauty, the only living coral reef attached to the continental shelf of the United States. It is a world of strange shapes where tiny animals build themselves into trees, fans and plumes or into domes and towers like mosques and minarets. It is a complex world where a host of marine creatures depend upon one another for existence. It is a world of spectacular cruelty, for here man has not eliminated the large predators—the sharks, the barracudas and moray eels. It is also a world rich in color, for the reef dwellers dress themselves with a gaudiness unrivaled on land.
Until recent years this underwater world of the coral reef was the province of only a few human beings: the early, intrepid divers whose interest in its beauty and mystery overcame their fears; the fishermen who put aside their rods to stare at the panorama through glass-bottomed buckets; and the occasional scientist seeking truths in a new field. But since World War II there has been a big change. Now man seems bent on returning to the depths from which he emerged so many eons ago. The sport of skin-diving is luring him beneath the waves and, to abet this yearning for an amphibious state, the federal government and the State of Florida have set aside part of the reefs as the world's first entirely underwater park, a preserve for the skin-diver, the fisherman and the fish watcher.
Called the Pennekamp Coral Reef Preserve, the park is the nation's first official response to man's mass movement toward the sea. It is also a protective measure for the reef's underwater beauty, for while men and women in masks and flippers seek new esthetic sport and danger in the world of the coral reefs, with them have also come despoilers. These are the souvenir hunters who blast the reefs for coral to stock roadside stands or take conchs by the truckload to sell as curios.
In recent years it became apparent to a group of interested individuals that if the coral reefs were to continue as a place of recreation and scientific study a part of them, at least, would have to be protected. After this group and other citizens had shared in the groundwork, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation last March 15 establishing a section of the reefs running parallel to Key Largo as an underwater park.
On the following pages SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents a pictorial panorama of this unique preserve. There are parks which include land and water areas, but here is a piece of the Atlantic Ocean, its boundaries marked by buoys and lighthouses, that has been set aside and protected by law in the same manner as any of our public parks on land. Lying only a couple of miles offshore, the new park parallels Key Largo for 21 miles. It varies from three and a half to four and a half miles wide and has an area of 75 square nautical miles. As the area straddles the three-mile limit, the cooperation of the federal government and the State of Florida was necessary to establish the preserve. One of its big assets in terms of recreational use is its accessibility—only an hour's drive from Miami.
Last December 10 some 500 persons assembled for the dedication ceremonies at Tavernier, a small community at the south end of Key Largo. There Ross Leffler, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, on behalf of President Eisenhower, turned the federal part of the park over to the Florida State Board of Parks and Historical Monuments. The state board will be in charge of policing the area and providing facilities for visitors. The then governor, LeRoy Collins, accepted the federal portion on behalf of the State of Florida and announced that the park board had chosen the name Pennekamp Coral Reef Preserve in honor of John Pennekamp, associate editor of the Miami Herald. Governor Collins explained that Mr. Pennekamp had devoted "a large part of his interests, his energy and his influence to the protection and development of the natural resources of our state."
Even before the dedication the state board had begun negotiations for property on Key Largo which will serve as a land base for the ocean park. This base will include an interpretive museum, boat docks and service area. When these facilities are completed, glass-bottomed boats will take visitors out to view the reefs. At present visitors must go in their own boats or hire one of the charter boats which put out from nearby communities on Key Largo.
Geologists say these reefs began forming some 5,000 or 6,000 years ago when the sea came up to its present level. They first came into historical prominence when Spanish galleons sailing by were sometimes wrecked by storms. Ponce de Léon cruised along them, as did English men-of-war, pirate ships and privateers. In the last century the reefs became famous for the ships wrecked there and for the wreckers from Key West who did a thriving business in salvage.
In 1957 Daniel B. Beard, then superintendent of Everglades National Park, called a conference on the preservation of natural resources in south Florida. At that meeting Dr. Gilbert L, Voss of the Marine Laboratory of the University of Miami described the dangers to the reefs posed by the depredations of coral collectors and shell hunters and proposed the establishment of a preserve to protect a part of them. From then on things moved rapidly toward President Eisenhower's proclamation.
The rules and regulations for the new park prohibit the removal of coral or any other depredations to the reefs. Sport and commercial fishing with hook and line are permitted, but net fishing and the use of poisons or electric charges in taking fish are banned. Spearfishing or the possession of spearfishing equipment within the park is prohibited, but skin-diving for photography, for observation and for pleasure is permitted and encouraged.