The last time I visited John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, I was a freshly certified scuba diver exploring Molasses Reef and French Reef, blowing bubbles with my sister, brother-in-law and a couple of friends. We were on a 10-day road trip through the Florida Keys in a mini-Winnie barely big enough to hold our scuba gear and beer. I was flying solo, passionately committed to a career as a freelance copywriter.
Twenty-eight years later I’m back at Pennekamp aboard a 40’ Manta catamaran with Mike, my husband of 22 years. Time has been kind to Pennekamp and me. The state’s favorite park looks great and offers many amenities: hot showers, picnic tables, nature trails, laundry, a sandwich joint, dinghy dock, kayak and boat rentals, and a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. America’s first undersea park offers 70 square nautical miles of reefs, clear water and a variety of marine life including lobsters, conchs, sharks, turtles and grunts, parrotfishes, snappers, angelfishes and more. The coral ranges from barrel to brain and pillar shapes.
The park is named after John Pennekamp, a Miami Herald newspaper editor and journalist for 51 years, who advocated the establishment of Everglades National Park. His volunteers efforts provided him with the credentials and contacts necessary for the preservation of America’s only living coral reef and led in 1963 to the state park’s opening.
Mike and I entered the channel to Largo Sound around 8 a.m. Its narrow opening squeezed Happy Times between shallows on one side and high-speed fishing boats on the other. Everybody and his brother it seemed was heading out to spend Father’s Day on the water. About half the boaters ignored the slow speed zone established between the mangroves until they reached a treacherous 90-degree turn fondly called Crash Corner by the locals. There they slowed down.
I picked up a mooring in the wide-open sound where only a trawler took up space. Mike and I quickly settled down for a lazy day because we, too, wanted to celebrate Father’s Day on the water.