Saturday, March 21, 2009

Escape to Key Largo - John Pennekamp State Park

ECO - Every Child Outside Nature Class
A Visit to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Key Largo, Florida

After our wonderful and exotic visit to the Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park hardwood hammock, we were ready for a refreshing visit to the shore. The kids were jumping for joy at the thought of a swim and the possibility of seeing fish. After having lunch at the cool and breezy picnic tables, we visited the wonderful aquariums at the visitor center. Their largest tank is being renovated, but what was left was enough to thrill the little eyes of our students.

Since we weren't able to take a trip in a boat out to the reefs, it was wonderful to see some of the reef life up close. Maybe some of our older, experienced swimmers will be able to go out this summer if we make another trip.

Because of the aquariums we were able to see spiny sea urchins, brittle sea stars, a moray eel and its symbiotic companion, the coral banded shrimp. The aquariums were full of live coral polyps - so unusual and beautiful and of many different colors - giving the children a taste of the underwater garden not too far off shore.

John Pennekamp State Park opened in the 1960's, and was the first underwater park opened in the United States. It is home to the largest coral reef in the continental United States and is protected as a National Marine Sanctuary. The coral reef is an ecologically diverse and extremely beautiful habitat. The reefs provide shelter and food to hundreds of animals (including humans), they provide oxygen to the ocean and it's inhabitants, and therefore to the world outside the water. They provide a natural barrier to hurricane and storm and tidal surge - creating the first wave of defense for the rocky shore nearby. We have enjoyed their beauty, reaped their plenty, and inadvertently (hopefully) almost destroyed them.

Surrounding the reefs is lovely, warm, crystal blue water - leading to the shoreline. The shoreline was once covered almost entirely with mangroves - the second defense for the shore against hurricanes. Mangroves are crucial habitat. They provide a nutritious muck and soup from their leaves - filling the water with nutrients for the baby sea creatures that hide in their branches (above and below the surface).

The park is home to a forest of old, knobby mangroves, creating an enchanted paradise for everyone who enters. The children and the adults in our group were in awe of these majestic mangroves that looked like they had survived many a storm. It was quiet and cool in their depths, I'm sure in about a month or two we won't be able to set foot in there because the mosquitoes will take over. Nonetheless, this day the children were able to climb and play and be a part of the mystery.

Further away from the shore, past the red mangroves, then the black, then the white, then the Buttonwood, the hardwood trees grow. There is a lovely hardwood hammock trail, older and cleaner than the forest at Dagny Johnson. Many of the same trees and creatures are present as at the Botanical Park, making it a unique and fascinating place to visit. There are Poisonwood trees galore, Mahogany, and the smelly Spanish Stopper, to name a few.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in lazy,beachy bliss - picnicking and swimming, climbing the Sea Grape trees and lounging in the shade or sun. The kids frolicked and hunted on the seashore, carrying nets and buckets on their quest, occassionally finding a shell or seaweed of interest - or just digging in the dirt.

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