John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is just one of the Underwater State Parks in the Florida Keys

John Pennekamp State Park was the first Underwater park in the United States. It’s just another one of those unique things that make the Florida Keys such a great place to live and visit. It's located on Key Largo at mile marker 102.5 Atlantic side.

Its beginnings go all the way back to the 50's. During those years queen conch and coral were taken from the waters of the Florida Keys on a regular basis. They were plucked from the ocean floor and taken out by the barge full. In 1957 a professor of marine biology, Dr. Gilbert Voss noted that the coral reefs in the Florida Keys were in trouble from all the coral that was being removed and sold. He began a campaign to save the reefs. John Pennekamp was a supporter of this campaign. He was working in Miami as associate editor of the Miami Herald Newspaper. The Coral Reef Preserve was formed.

In 1959 Florida Governor Leroy Collins gave the Coral Reef Preserve control over the ocean floor out to the Florida three-mile limit. This didn’t include the reef area. In March of 1960 the Governor of Florida persuaded the Federal Government to transfer ownership of some Federal land to the State. This land began at the three-mile limit and went out to the 300 foot depth.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef On December 10, 1960, Governor Collins dedicated and named the Coral Reef Preserve the “John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.”

They needed a land base for the Park. John Pennekamp knew 74 acres of the SW part of Largo Sound was for sale. The owners were Rand Trust and the Radford Crane family. They already had a firm sale offer on the property for $141,000 dollars. John Pennekamp met with Radford Crane trying to persuade him to hold off on accepting the offer on the property. He wanted the State to have a chance to meet the offer. The problem was this offer wouldn’t be discussed by the State until the Legislature met again. For Crane to hold off, he wanted assurance from Pennekamp the offer would be met. He couldn’t make that promise. Crane asked to see the map John Pennekamp was holding. He studied it for a few minutes and then said “forget it” then he said “I’ll give it to you.”

Donated land for land base

Now they had property for the land base and the Underwater Preserve, but they didn’t have access to the property from US 1. Florida Keys residents’ Herbert and Donna Shaw stepped in and donated a 60 foot strip of land from US 1 to the land base. They also had the land cleared and made it ready for a road. This road is now the old entrance to the park just south of the current one. It’s closed to traffic.

Work began on the park in 1962. State and County governments had to match the cost dollar-for-dollar.

By 1963 work was well underway. A superintendent was named. He was Ellison Hardee.

John Pennekamp and Radford Crane were at a luncheon. Pennekamp invited Crane to come see the work on the land base he had donated. Crane had already seen it. He was so happy with the work he offered to donate more land to the park.

The next day Crane’s attorney presented maps of three quarters of Largo Sound and all of Julia Island. It’s an island between Largo Sound and the Atlantic. This land gave them three miles of oceanfront property.

A point of interest. The Crane family owned several draglines, because they owned strip mines up North. Several were not being used so they brought them to the Florida Keys. They used the draglines to dredge and fill the area in the Lower Keys that’s known today as Sugarloaf Shores on Sugarloaf Key.

Largo Sound Key Largo Hurricane Donna plowed thru the Upper Keys in 1960. The owners of small boats didn’t have a safe place to secure their boats. After this, the Army Engineers and the Coast Guard were allowed to dig the channels deeper from Largo Sound out to the Atlantic Ocean. This now gave the boats a safe haven from storms, it connected the Intercoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean, and it gave boating access to John Pennekamp State Park.

In 1965 an Italian dive enthusiast named Egidi Cressi, donated the nine foot bronze statue the “Christ of the Deep,” to the Underwater Society of America. It weighs two tons and is a duplicate of the “Il Christo Degli Abissi,” that’s located in the Mediterranean Sea. The Underwater Society gave the statue to the Florida Parks Service. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was chosen as the place for the statue.

A 20,000 pound reinforced concrete base was constructed to secure the statue to the ocean floor. It was brought out on a barge and lowered into position and bolted into place.

Not too long after it was in place Category 3 Hurricane Betsy blew thru the Upper Keys. To everyone’s joy the statue was upright and in position, it hadn’t been damaged or moved by the storm. The statue is still there today with its arms uplifted toward the sky at Key Largo’s Dry Rocks Reef in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Diving at John Pennekamp State Park

The park has a total of 70 nautical square miles. The upper areas are mangrove swamps and tropical hardwood hammocks. Most visitors come to the park for the diving and snorkeling. You can also canoe, kayak or take a glass bottom boat out to see the beautiful marine life on the coral reef . Fishing is allowed only in designated areas of the park. The visitors center houses a 30,000 saltwater aquarium.

Not very far from John Pennekamp Park is another Underwater State Park. It’s the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park. It’s a shipwreck from a Spanish flotilla. The San Pedro sank in a hurricane on July 13,1733. The shipwreck was discovered in Hawk channel in 1960. It was salvaged in the 60's. All that’s left is a pile of ballast stones. They’re scattered over an area about 90 feet long by 30 feet wide. In recent years replicas of seven cannons, an anchor and an information plaque have been placed on the site. It’s located about 1.25 miles off Indian Key in 18 feet of water. The site has mooring buoys. The GPS coordinates are 24-51.802'N and 80-40.795'W.

I’m sure glad for the people that weren’t so greedy in the earlier days when the Florida Keys were being developed. It’s a good thing for those of us who enjoy watching the marine life on such beautiful coral reefs as those in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

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