A State Park Under the Sea

One of the greatest strengths of Florida’s state park system is its diversity. Between the caves, springs, towering forests, picture-perfect beaches, and historic structures, there’s a park to suit almost every interest. Heck, Florida is even home to the nation’s first underwater state park, located down in the Florida Keys.

A brochure (circa 1960s) for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (State Library Ephemera Collection - filed under "State Parks").

A brochure (circa 1960s) for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (State Library Ephemera Collection – filed under “State Parks”).

If you’ve ever been to the Keys, you know there’s not much point to staying on land if you don’t have to – not when there’s fishing to do, swimming to enjoy, and breathtaking coral reefs to explore. The reefs are an especially unique feature of the Florida Keys, and it was a desire to preserve these priceless natural treasures that started the movement toward developing a state park to feature them.

A queen angel fish swims along a reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (1980).

A queen angel fish swims along a reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (1980).

In 1957, marine biologists and other experts gathered at Everglades National Park to discuss preservation efforts for the natural resources of South Florida. Florida was growing in popularity as a family vacation destination, which translated into higher usage of sensitive marine habitats and exploitation of their plant and animal life. Queen conchs, coral, and tropical fish were being harvested at an unsustainable rate by collectors looking to sell them in souvenir shops. Outboard motor usage was damaging both the reefs and the animals using them for a home.

The idea of protecting the coral reefs off the Florida Keys wasn’t new. When Everglades National Park was established in the 1940s, it was originally supposed to include a series of reefs in about the same part of the Keys as the state park would later be built. Under this plan, however, the national park territory would have extended over parts of the Keys themselves, which provoked opposition from property owners in the area. Ultimately, that part of the Everglades preserve was scrapped in order to ensure the broader project moved forward.

Map outlining the boundaries of the original proposal for Everglades National Park (1937). This map was obtained from the correspondence of Governor Millard Caldwell (Box 25, folder 1 of Series 576, State Archives of Florida).

Map outlining the boundaries of the original proposal for Everglades National Park (1937). This map was obtained from the correspondence of Governor Millard Caldwell (Box 25, folder 1 of Series 576, State Archives of Florida). Notice that in this early version of the map, a piece of the project juts out to the east, crossing the Florida Keys to include several coral reefs.

Support for preserving the reefs remained strong, however, and a movement developed out of that 1957 conference to create a separate preserve specifically designed with these natural treasures in mind. The project involved unique challenges, especially figuring out how to define ownership and control of the seafloor near the reefs. On December 3, 1959, Governor LeRoy Collins granted control of a section of the seafloor within three miles of land to the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a proclamation on March 15, 1960 giving the U.S. Department of the Interior control of a section extending from the three-mile limit out to the continental shelf. With these designations in place, Florida was ready to establish the nation’s first underwater park.

At a dedication ceremony held on December 10, 1960 at Harris Park in Tavernier, Governor LeRoy Collins announced that the new preserve would be be named “John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park,” in honor of Miami newspaper editor John Pennekamp. Pennekamp had been instrumental in keeping pressure on state officials to move the reef preserve project forward. He had also served as a member of the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials almost continually since its inception.

John Pennekamp (right) with President Harry S. Truman (left) at the dedication ceremony for Everglades National Park in 1947.

John Pennekamp (right) with President Harry S. Truman (left) at the dedication ceremony for Everglades National Park in 1947.

In 1961, again in part through Pennekamp’s efforts, two cash donations were received to help purchase land on Key Largo for a park headquarters site. Another gift came in 1963, this one an anonymous one of $2,350,000, making it the largest single gift received by the Florida Park Service to that time. The park’s first superintendent, Ellison Hardee, arrived at Key Largo in April 1963 to begin work, and by May the park was open to the public.

One of the most unique aspects of the park is an 8.5-foot bronze statue of Jesus Christ located in about 25 feet of water near Dry Rocks. Called “Christ of the Abyss,” the statue is a casting of the original by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti. The casting was commissioned by Italian dive equipment manufacturer Egidio Cressi, who donated it to the Underwater Society of America in 1961. Senator Spessard Holland volunteered John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to display the statue, and it was placed by Cothon Construction Company on August 25, 1965.

Christ of the Abyss, a bronze sculpture displayed underwater at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo (circa 1990).

“Christ of the Abyss,” a bronze sculpture displayed underwater at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo (circa 1990).

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is just one of 161 sites managed by the Florida Park Service. Which one is your favorite? Share your thoughts and memories by leaving a comment below, and don’t forget to share our blog with your friends and family on Facebook!

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One thought on “A State Park Under the Sea

  1. I told my brother tht i wished my urn could be thrown i the Gulf Stream and end up in the reefs in Florida, sealed of course. I wanted to put a plaque on it asking ‘Folks, please leave me be, I’ve had a long voyage from Maine USA, and here I want to rest for eternity.’ Is that illegal?

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