No visit to the Upper Keys is complete without stopping in at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is known as the ‘first undersea park in the U.S.’ This unique distinction is also a good reason to bring along a mask and snorkel – or rent some there. There are several ways to enjoy the underwater scenery, and the one(s) you choose all depend on your idea of fun. The offshore reefs are a major attraction to visitors, especially near Dry Rocks where you can swim past the iconic Christ of the Abyss statue. Pennekamp has its own dive shop, and you can purchase a seat on a boat and either snorkel or dive one of the nearby reefs.
If you’d rather stay dry, never fear – there’s an option for you as well. You can buy a ticket for the park’s large glass bottom boat and watch the tropical fish and sea fans wave to you from under your feet.
And if you want to go off on your own adventure, there are choices here as well. Rent a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle board, and you can explore the mangrove waterways that border Largo Sound. While that may sound a little daunting – it’s not really. You get a waterproof map and instructions on which paths to take (and which to avoid, such as the boat channels and the ones that take you out to sea)!
On a recent visit to John Pennekamp State Park, my husband and I chose to kayak the mangrove-lined creeks. We piled our gear bag in the middle of the double kayak, got some last-minute advice on how to jump off a kayak without flipping the whole contraption, and made off for Largo Sound. Our gear bag had all the essentials: snorkel gear (including fins), an underwater camera, a towel, water, a water shirt (rash guard), sunscreen, sunglasses, and chips and salsa. If the whole bag fell in, everything was salvageable except the chips.
I wouldn’t say it’s easy to jump off a kayak without flipping it, but somehow we managed to do that and snorkel right off our boat. In the green waters closest to John Pennekamp State Park, you’re not going to see the spectacular sites of the Pennekamp reefs (which are located between 3 and 8 miles offshore). You won’t find brain coral or the same variety of sea life here. However, especially in the deeper, broader waterways like Stingray Creek, you can still be rewarded with some captivating sights. For instance, we found ledges with a slew of lobster taking refuge underneath. (These are the smart ones; they’re protected within the state park, although that doesn’t guarantee they won’t still end up in a pot). We also saw fish and crabs and collected a few shells.
There are some caveats to seeing Pennekamp this way. Kayaking is easy; but we did see one couple flip their boat, and if you’re snorkeling, be sure to tie up to a tree or have a partner paddle nearby. The current in some places is swifter than you would think, and you need to be a confident swimmer. (Of course, you’ll get a life jacket, but a life jacket won’t keep you from floating off into a channel if you can’t swim well).
Also, be sure to pay close attention to the waterproof map, and ignore assurances from your partner that it APPEARS as if Spider Creek connects to Deception Creek. Note the name: DECEPTION CREEK. Also, if you do end up paddling (or, in our case, advancing via tree branches) down an extremely narrow path that doesn’t really look like a path, it’s a good idea to go back the way you came as soon as possible (this may mean pushing yourself out backward). This might seem like a grand adventure until you get home and realize that some of those mangrove trees that were passing over your arms and legs were actually likely riddled with the invasive Brazilian Pepper plant (lesser-known than its famous cousins, poison ivy and poison oak). While contact dermatitis won’t kill you, I know you can probably think of better things to do than have a corticosteroid shot into your backside. I know I can.
All in all, this Keys excursion really was a grand adventure. Given the choice of a shot in the backside and kayaking Pennekamp or sitting at home on my couch, I’d take the shot any day.