Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades
By Rick Ferren
[Fig. 3(1)] Less than an hour's drive from Miami, and overlooked by many visitors intent on getting started on their Overseas Highway adventure in the Keys, Biscayne Bay National Park preserves a sampling of marine ecosystems including a thick mangrove shoreline, a shallow brackish-water bay, isolated keys, and a living coral reef.
The park is not overlooked, especially on weekends, by a portion of the 2.5 million Miami residents, or the 8 million annual Miami tourists looking for a recreational outlet. They come to cruise over the emerald green, crystal-clear waters and vast seagrass beds; they come to dive and snorkel the shallow coral reefs and explore the miracle of life here; or they come to visit, explore, and maybe camp on one of the small keys equipped with boat slips and nature trails.
Although Key Largo is often referred to as the northernmost island in the Florida Keys chain, 44 additional keys extend the line of islands north into the boundaries of Biscayne Bay National Park and almost to the city of Miami. Like their counterparts in the rest of the Keys, many of the islands support a tangled, tropical hardwood forest where exotically named trees like the gumbo-limbo, mahogany, poisonwood, strangler fig, and torchwood fight for space. A fringe of red mangroves and buttonwood trees encircles most of the islands.
Also like the rest of the Keys, the Atlantic side of the islands is home to a share of North America's only living coral reef. Made up of brain coral, staghorn coral (which resembles deer antlers), branching elkhorn coral, tube coral, and star coral the reefs extend south and join those in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.
Because the living reefs are so shallow, snorkelers and even glass bottom boat riders are treated to a close-up kaleidoscopic array of tropical fish. Among them are the flamboyantly hued queen angelfish, yellow-headed wrasse, queen and spotlight parrotfish, blue tang, blue triggerfish, Spanish hogfish, damselfish, and neon gobies (Gobiosoma oceanops).
Although most fish seem to live quiet lives, it's not uncommon for snorkelers and divers to hear the sharp-beaked parrotfish munching on coral polyps. Other reef inhabitants include spotted moray eels (Gymnothorax moringa), lobsters, sponges, sea fans, anemones, and Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus).
Biscayne Bay, lying between the mainland and the string of barrier islands, adds another ecological dimension to the park. Sunlight easily penetrates the crystal-clear 5- to 10-foot depths, supporting a vast forest of waving, wide-bladed turtle grass. Sponges of many species and shapes are common in the bay's waters, as are immature lobster hiding among the grasses until they grow large enough to venture onto the reef.
Manatees commonly graze lazily on the seagrasses. Sea turtles weighing hundreds of pounds glide through the clear water as if weightless. Southern stingrays float across the bottom, while seatrout, redfish, and barracuda roam through the tall grass looking for an unsuspecting meal.
Bonefish and permit are among the most sought after prey by local anglers, especially the fly-fishing crowd. Both species feed over the sand and grass flats and are known for their blistering run after feeling the hook. Snook, bluefish, barracuda, and Spanish mackerel are also caught in the bay. Since the park's boundary extends out to a depth of 60 feet offshore, anglers go in search of grouper, snapper, king mackerel, and dolphin as well.
The park also encompasses a narrow strip of almost unbroken mangrove coastline. Red mangroves with their thick prop roots dominate the vegetation immediately next to the salt water. Buttonwoods take over when the land is drier and a little higher. The mangroves are important both as filters for rainwater runoff, and to insure a low-level flood of nutrients from the mainland.
By renting a canoe and exploring the coastline you'll have a chance to see many of the species associated with the mangroves. Wading birds like snowy egrets, great blue herons, white ibis, brown pelicans, and roseate spoonbills feed in shallow mangrove-lined pools. Many of these same species also nest in the low trees. Wood storks and yellow-crowned night herons (Nyctanassa violacea) can often be seen along the base of the mangroves, searching for food among the prop roots. Osprey perch on the highest branches.
In the 1960s, developers proposed construction of resort hotels and other facilities on some of Biscayne Bay's small keys. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Ernest F. Coe, and other conservationists successfully campaigned to protect the pristine islands, and in 1968, Congress designated Biscayne Bay National Monument, in recognition of its "rare combination of terrestrial, marine, and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty." In 1980, its status was changed to a national park, and with the acquisition of additional keys and offshore reefs it was expanded to its current size of 181,500 acres. About 95 percent of the park is under water.
The park's concessionaire, Biscayne National Underwater Park Inc., conducts three-hour glass bottom boat tours from the Convoy Point Visitor Center. Across the bay there are 66 boat slips at Elliott Key Harbor, and other docks at Boca Chita Key, where boaters can tie up and spend the day free of charge or overnight for a fee. Docking is on a first-come, first-served basis. Rental canoes are also available.
The Elliott Key Campground has 40 primitive campsites with cold showers, restrooms, and drinking water available. Permits are required. Picnic tables and grills are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campers are required to take away all trash. The island also has a self-guided nature trail, which begins at the harbor and winds through a tropical hardwood forest with rare flowers, trees, and vines. A longer hike follows the old road that runs the length of the 7-mile island.
To the north of Elliott Key, Boca Chita Key's landmark is a 65-foot decommissioned lighthouse and a beautiful harbor. Amenities include primitive tent camping (no permit required), a boat dock (overnight fee), a picnic area, restrooms, and a short nature trail.
To the south of Elliott Key, Adams Key is open only for daylight use. There is a free boat dock, a picnic shelter, restrooms, and a nature trail. There is no fresh water.
There is a public boat ramp at the Convoy Point Visitor Center and navigation charts are for sale. Florida state saltwater fishing and license rules and regulations apply. Licenses may be acquired at marinas and bait shops. (See Appendix E, page 298 for more information on Florida fishing licenses.) There is no camping allowed in the mainland areas of the park, but several privately owned campgrounds and RV parks are nearby in Homestead, Florida City, and south Miami.