Snorkeling Vacation in Key Largo
By: John McNamara
When thinking about going
to Key Largo, Florida what do you think about doing? I hope
its snorkeling, because Key Largo and the Florida Keys have
some of the best snorkeling in the world. I was able to spend
a day with the outfitter, Sundiver, in Key Largo and explore
the John Pennekamp Coral Reef. It was here that I learned what
is required for snorkeling and the history or the marine sanctuary.
My favorite part was learning about the hidden treasure under
the sea by actually snorkeling the reefs.
Upon arriving at the check
in station at Sundiver Station, I noticed that they have display
boards with interesting facts about the Coral Reef system off
Key Largo. Key Largo was the first Marine Sanctuary of its kind.
The recorded history of John Pennekamp says that in 1957 a biological
conference concerned with the preservation of the natural resources
of South Florida was held in Everglades National Park. At this
meeting, Dr. Gilbert Voss of the Marine Institute of Miami described
the extent of damage which was occurring to the reef structure
that he had noted during his studies in the Keys.
The tourist trade was
taking its toll on the coral structures as souvenirs for visitors.
Seashells, corals, sponges, sea horses, and marine life were
being hammered, chiseled, and even dynamited to provide knickknacks
for the tourists. The coral reefs that took thousands of years
to form were quickly being decimated by thoughtless vendors.
Dr. Voss then suggested that no more profitable scientific project
could be undertaken except for the protection of this area.
Without some restrictions on the exploitation of the reefs,
commercial interests would easily extinct the only hard coral
reef formation in North America.
Dr. Voss successfully
recruited conservationists to support his contentions that the
reef should be protected, but his most powerful ally would eventually
become an assistant editor for the Miami Herald, John D. Pennekamp.
Pennekamp had played a
major role in the establishment of Everglades National Park
as legislative chairman of the State Commission appointed to
bring it about. He was the first chairman of the Florida Board
of Parks and Historic Memorials and a member of a civilian team
of consultants which surveyed the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
for the Department of the Interior in 1954. Pennekamp also held
numerous state, local, and national conservation awards.
When the two men joined
forces they were able to utilize the research of Dr. Voss and
the journalistic effort of John Pennekamp to organize a coalition
of conservationists that would undertake the project of protecting
the valuable marine resources. The road ahead was not an easy
one, but the efforts of Dr. Voss and Mr. Pennekamp were sufficient
enough to get the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials
to designate a 75 square mile section of offshore Florida as
a permanent preserve. For three years the advocates of the preserve
struggled to win approval for the park, and successfully resisted
all opposition from commercial interests that wished to leave
the reefs open for pillage.
In the spring of 1960,
President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the area as Key Largo
Coral Reef Preserve. By the time the dedication ceremonies were
held on December 10, 1960, Governor Leroy Collins made a slight
change and named America’s first underwater park as John
Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Governor Collins named the
park after John D. Pennekamp in appreciation of the continuous
editorial support that had been given by Pennekamp in the Miami
After getting familiar
with the history, I took the opportunity to talk to other guests
waiting to get on the snorkel boat. I was amazed how many people
were there to snorkel for the first time. I give them a lot
of credit for trying this thrilling activity. The crew was very
helpful on the ship and were able to teach all the beginners
what to expect and what to do. Nevertheless, it always helps
to have a bit of experience snorkeling before encountering the
reef. Here are some helpful pointers to make your first, or
second or third, snorkeling experience even better:
The key to successful snorkeling is relaxation in the water.
It is as much a psychological as it is a physical skill. You
will improve your skills and become comfortable in the water
with practice. Here are some training tips.
- Put all your equipment on and practice floating in the face
down and horizontal positions. Don’t swim; just calmly float.
You can do this in shallow water or a swimming pool.
- Prepare for mask and/or snorkel floods. If a flood happens in
open water it can be distressing to someone who is not ready to
handle the situation. Practice this skill by floating in shallow
water and deliberately flooding and clearing your equipment. Here’s
- To flood your mask, gently pull it away from your face
and allow water to enter the mask. To clear it out, lift your
head out of the water and tilt the bottom of the mask away
from your face and allow the water to drain out.
- To flood your snorkel, immerse your head under the water
until your snorkel fills up. Remember to hold your breath!
To clear your snorkel, exhale a burst of air through your
mouth to blast the water out. Then take a cautious first breath
to make sure all the water is gone.
- In the water, objects look 25% larger (or closer) than they
really are. You can practice judging distance by floating in very
shallow water and reaching down to touch the bottom. This will
help you learn how far an “arm’s length” is
- Walking with fins on can be uncertain on dry land or on a boat.
If you are snorkeling from shore, try putting your fins on and
removing them in waist deep water. If you are snorkeling from
a boat, don’t put your fins on until it is time to enter
the water and take them off at the boat ladder before getting
back on the boat.
- To use your fins correctly, you must use an efficient kick.
You can do this by using a slow flutter kick motion. Try to keep
your knees and ankles relaxed to prevent your leg muscles from
cramping. Once you are proficient in this skill, you will notice
that your fins propel you through the water. You will hardly need
to use your arms and can let them rest easily at your side, or
keep one arm floating in front of your head to act as a bumper.
- Once you have mastered using your equipment, practice controlling
your movements in the water. You will feel more comfortable and
calm in the water as you improve your maneuvering abilities and
you will minimize accidental bump-ins with objects in the water
such as other snorkelers, reef elements, buoys, etc.
- Knowing your personal limitations is a vital skill often overlooked.
Recognize them and remain aware of them. There is no good reason
to push your limits. They will change with each snorkeling opportunity
presented. Factors to consider are water temperature, surge, currents,
and visibility. Your personal limitations will also change when
you gain experience, get older, or have a change in health.
A relaxed snorkeler will
get more pleasure out of snorkeling and a greater appreciation of
the environment. A calm snorkeler seems less threatening and when
the aquatic wildlife realizes you are not a threat, they resume
their normal routine, allowing you to experience their world.
Sundiver goes to many different snorkel spots inside the Marine
Santuary, like Grecian Rocks, White Banks, Molasses Reef, and the
very popular Christ of the Abyss. I was fortunate. The day I was
there the weather was beautiful and the conditions just right. Nevertheless,
the Sundiver crew made it clear they would not go out if the conditions
were not right. This day at Grecian Rocks the fish were plenty and
the reef was vibrant with colors. Hopefully, the pictures here will
demonstrate the experience better than words can describe.
You can see why Gerry and
Kathie, the owners of Sundiver, have been so successful in this
business for the past 25 years. You can’t go wrong snorkeling
with them. They don’t miss any details and are always concerned
with your safety. They maintain a clean and safe boat. It is one
of the few snorkel boats where the dive platform is level with the
ocean, with very easy entry into and out of the ocean. The boat
is quick to reach the reef, a characteristic appreciated by all.
On top of it all, there are hot showers to welcome guests back on
shore. Over all, it’s a fantastic day of snorkeling and fun.
Since Key Largo is the biggest
Key in the chain of Islands, you have plenty of choices there. From Activities like swimming with the dolphins in Key Largo, to hotels
and restaurants. Gerry recommends Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, the
best lunch and Key Lime pie around. The Suites of Key Largo is located
near the boat dock, and is fine for accommodations. If you have
any questions, please call Gerry and Kathie at Sundiver.
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Sundiver Snorkel Tours
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