Catch A Glimpse Of Florida's Coral Reef At This Underwater State Park

A network of vibrant coral reefs awaits your exploration just beneath the surface of the sparkling turquoise waters in the Florida Keys. The shallow reefs are teeming with marine life. They're the only living coral reefs located within the continental United States and one of the most extensive barrier reefs in the world. Conservationists are working tirelessly to protect the fragile ecosystem, which is continuously threatened by extreme heat waves, according to climate scientists.

John Pennekamp State Park, located in the Atlantic Ocean near Key Largo, Florida, offers a perfect opportunity to explore the fascinating world under the sea through a variety of tours and educational exhibitions. The park was established in 1963, making it the oldest marine park in the United States. It covers 70 nautical square miles of protected reef in total, spanning 25 miles along the coast and 3 miles into the ocean.

The Florida Coral Reef system and many other reefs worldwide are endangered ecosystems. According to experts, the rising temperatures could eventually wipe out 70-90% of all reefs.On the bright side, marine parks like John Pennekamp State Park provide much-needed protections while allowing tourists to experience the underwater magic and get up close and personal with marine creatures.

Explore Key Largo's marine oasis

John Pennekamp State Park makes the perfect day trip from the bustling metropolis of Miami and can be reached in just over an hour by car. In Miami, car rentals are plentiful, and you can often find options for as little as $10 per day. A scenic drive along the coast will take you to the Florida Keys, a beautiful network of tropical islands with plenty of adventurous things to do, which are connected to the mainland via a series of bridges. You'll find the park on the first and largest of the islands, Key Largo.

The park admission fee costs $2.50 for pedestrians and cyclists and $4.50 per person in a car. The more people in a car, the more of a discount you get (for example, a car with four adults is $10). Please note the fees posted online are different than signage at the park. Park hours are from 8 a.m. until sunset daily. 

Amenities at the park include restrooms, showers, picnic areas, and a small shop where you can book tours and purchase snacks, beverages, t-shirts, and gifts. There is also a visitor center with a small museum discussing the importance of the reef and the park's history. The Environmental Education Visitor Center and Aquarium houses a 30,000-gallon aquarium featuring local species as well as a cinema showing short nature films. Visitor Center hours are from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily, and admission is included with the park entry price.

Enjoy snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding, and more

John Pennekamp State Park is the perfect place to enjoy the great outdoors and soak up some famous Florida sunshine, with plenty of activities to suit every preference. Snorkeling is incredibly popular, and five tours depart daily at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12 p.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3 p.m.

You'll embark on a catamaran-style boat with a qualified captain who will take you through the mangroves to some of the area's best reefs. The tour lasts about two hours, and you'll have about an hour and a half in the water. The cost is $38.95 per adult. Snorkeling equipment is also available to rent — masks and fins cost $4 each and several types of snorkels can be rented for under $20. Certified scuba divers can enjoy a dive for $90, and new divers can book resort dives and certification courses at the park with costs ranging from $225 to $485, depending on the program.

If you long to see the magic of the reef without getting wet, check out the glass bottom boat tours, which allow you to appreciate the colorful beauty below the ocean's surface without ever leaving the safety of the boat. Tickets cost $32 per adult and $19 per child. Some of the glass bottom boats are wheelchair-accessible. Paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes are available for rent if you'd like to go on a self-guided tour of the mangroves around the park. Rentals start at $20 per hour.