It’s my second trip in a decade on the Spirit of Pennekamp, the glass-bottomed catamaran that is the easy touring choice for visiting the reason John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park exists, the living coral reef six miles offshore from Key Largo.
The dock is surprisingly crowded. A tidal wave of kids hit the line before me. One of their leaders, Chris Graham, checks in the group of about 40 inner city Houston kids on a GeoForce geology field trip sponsored by Chevron, Shell, and the University of Texas. This is the tenth year for the program, and the last stop for this particular group. They take daily quizzes and have a test at the end of the trip, and they must make 80 or above to return. This particular group is made up of high school freshmen. Before coming to Pennekamp, they visited beaches throughout South Florida.
We share brackish Largo Creek with paddlers and boaters – including the African Queen, normally moored at the Holiday Inn but coming in to fuel up – en route to tidal South Creek. Both are lined with thickets of mangroves. These aren’t the ancient mangroves you’ll see in some parts of Florida.
When John and I were kids, government agencies were ripping out South Florida mangroves in the name of mosquito control. It didn’t hurt developers’ plans, either. Sixty percent of Key Largo was denuded of its mangrove fringe; most of what I see as we cruise the creeks has grown back in my lifetime. On a channel marker, a double crested cormorant is preening.
This is the first time for most of the GeoForce students on a boat. Standing at bow, with the wind whipping their hair, they chatter as we head out into the open ocean. Most of the other passengers are foreigners – Norwegian, German, Japanese – with a handful of out-of-staters. Some opted for this trip after worrying that the snorkel trip would not be in calm waters. The seas are 2-4 feet where we are headed. One father is trying to console his young daughter that they didn’t go snorkeling.
“We’ve never snorkled,” said her mom.
“This isn’t a good first timer snorkel,” I said. “Not this far offshore. Better to try it out in calm, shallow waters first to see if you like it.”
The boat shudders against the surf, throwing a wave of students in white t-shirts against the window. They still have their smiles on, that devil-may-care attitude of youth. They’re on a thrill ride. It could be a jet boat trip. They’re happy. My last rough water crossing was several hours on the Irish Sea in a huge ferry boat in a storm, and this is calm by comparison. Looking at the swells, I worry about John and his snorkeling trip. His boat is already at the reef.
Sea spray kicks up as we leave Bowling Alley Channel and enter the open ocean at 15 knots. It feels like we are flying at this speed.
The Florida National Marine Sanctuary is where Molasses Reef is located, 6 miles from the mouth of South Creek. As we speed out towards the distant lighthouse, a continuous loop video identifies reef fish like the harlequin bass, yellowtail damselfish, and blue chromis.
Mooring balls adjoining the lighthouse marking the reef. Boats are required to use them, and they are first-come, first-served. No anchors can be dropped into this precious underwater habitat.
Waves break across the top of the reef. The swells bounce us around like a roller coaster. Our reef interpreter, walks between the window wells. Each window is numbered, making it easy for her to point out corals and fish. The fire coral strings. “Anything brightly colored is poisonous,” she says. She adds that Christ of the Sea is covered in it so that blissful feeling that divers talk about by embracing the statue is stinging. “Give him a high-five, the only spot without fire coral,” she said.
There are hundreds of sea fans in orange and purple. Enormous brain coral. Schools of parrotfish. A fish once used as sailors nail file. Walls of corals with chasms between and sandy breaks between the walls. Fish school in swirls in protected holes. A barracuda flashes past.
With the rock and lurch of the boat and the motion of sea fans and fish, I find it difficult to take photos. Video is preferable: at least it might come out. We can see the smaller boats anchored to the mooring balls and they are lurching too. Heads with masks are bobbing in the swells. I wonder how John is faring under these conditions.
Quite a few of the field trip kids headed topside to stare at the horizon and make use of barf bags. This is way outside their comfort zone, which will give them great stories to share when they get home.
Our interpreter shares the story of how Keys coral sand is made, and how certain fish can change their sex as needed. She names dozens of species floating past below; it’s tough to keep pace. I find it best to find a sun-drenched spot on the reef and focus on that. She mentions two Goliath grouper are frequently seen on the reef. They call them Cooper and Mini-Cooper.
I step outside for a look overboard as we depart the reef. The water is a stunning turquoise; the sand flats are visible at the bottom. Returning to the marked channel, it’s a 20-minute low speed cruise through the mangrove-lined creeks back to the park.
Stepping off the Spirit of Pennekamp I hear a whistle. It’s John in the shade of a picnic pavilion. “My boat got in five minutes ago,” he said. “And I swam to the wrong boat!”