The Florida Keys have a distinctive Caribbean flavor. Maybe it's the contrast with Miami's tropical sophistication, but once you hit two-lane A1A heading south, you can feel it. You are surrounded by water, and that island feeling takes over. But the Keys have their own claims to fame. There are Key lime pie, bonefishing, conch fritters, and let us not forget the king of Caribbean soul, Jimmy Buffett. But the crown jewel of the Keys is the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This park in Key Largo, Florida, was established more than 40 years ago, in 1963. The park is adjacent to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which covers 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove swamps. These protected reefs are also the only living coral reef system in the continental United States, so once again, man is charged with making sure that these reefs do not go the way of those that were unprotected and ravaged to extinction.
There are many places in the world where reefs are still being exploited to death. And it appeared that the reefs of the Keys would suffer the same fate in the early part of the 20th century. Fortunately, a group of marine scientists and avid environmentalists, including Miami newspaper editor John D. Pennekamp, took it upon themselves to pursue both public and private support in establishing the first portion of this extensive marine sanctuary and ending the harvesting of corals, sponges, seashells and marine life to be sold as souvenirs. In 1960, after a three-year struggle, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared the area a marine preserve. Three years later, the park opened to the public and has welcomed visitors ever since. Dive shops around the country now make annual pilgrimages to Key Largo to dive one of the country's most popular marine attractions. Divers not only are able to explore the coral gardens and witness the prolific fish life, but also learn about the ecosystems that support the health of the reefs through environmental programs and educational exhibits at the park's visitor center. The dive operation at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a PADI 5-Star Gold Palm IDC facility that departs the docks from within the park twice daily for two-tank dives. One of the biggest attractions within the preserve is the Christ of the Abyss statue at Dry Rocks reef. This 9-foot statue of Christ reaching up with outstretched arms sits in about 25 feet of water. It was donated to the park in 1961 by Italian diving enthusiast Egidi Cressi (of Cressi-sub fame) and has become a very popular site not only for divers, but also for under-water weddings. Molasses Reef is also a popular site. Healthy corals provide havens for the abundance of marine life that flourishes in theprotected waters, including eels, sea turtles, rays and occasionally sharks. The sites within the sanctuary can also be reached by many independent dive operations from outside the park property. PADI 5-Star facilities in the Key Largo area include Horizon Divers (www.horizondivers.com), Ocean Divers (www.oceandivers.com), Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort (www.amoray.com), Aqua-Nut Divers (www.aqua-nuts.com), It's a Dive (www.itsadive.com), Paradise Charters Dive Center (www.paradisecharters.net), Paradise Dive & Snorkel and Sea Dwellers Dive Center (www.seadwellers.com). For a complete list of PADI dive operators in the Key Largo area, visit www.padi.com.