Biscayne National Park
9700 SW 328 Street
Homestead, FL 33033-5634
Biscayne National Park is a place of wonders. Located just a few miles from the crowded streets of Miami, this national park includes more than 170,000 acres and protects a unique assemblage of coral reefs, offshore islands, and associated aquatic environments in the upper Florida Keys. There are many water activities for visitors, including snorkeling and scuba diving among the reefs.
Entrance fees: Admission is free.
Visitor center: Dante Fascell Visitor Center is open year-round, except December 25.
Other services: Two information stations, two boat-in campgrounds
- Boca Chita Key Campground. Available via boat only. Open year-round. First-come, first-served. 305-230-7275.
- Elliott Key Campground. Available via boat only. Open year-round. First-come, first-served. 305-230-7275.
Visiting Biscayne National ParkWarmed by Gulf Stream waters flowing up through the sea like an immense river, Biscayne Bay extends eastward from the heavy mangrove forests of southern Florida to a string of low-lying barrier islands and coral reefs that protect it from the ocean.
The park encompasses Biscayne Bay between Key Biscayne and Key Largo, the northernmost islands of the Florida Keys. It is the only national park that is almost entirely underwater. Only five percent of its area is on dry land; the rest is an ocean wonderland.
The surface areas of the park consist of 42 barrier islands strung across the water like pearls on a string and the magnificent mangrove shoreline that is the one the East Coast's major undeveloped coastal areas. The mangroves help stabilize this shoreline by trapping their own fallen leaves in networks of tangled roots. This decaying matter, rich in protein, provides food for the tiny creatures that occupy the bottom of the bay's extensive food chain. The mangroves also attract many species of birds, including peregrine falcons and bald eagles.
The most prominent forms of life in Biscayne National Park are the extensive communities of underwater coral reefs. These are the only living reefs within the continental United States. To learn more about exploring the coral reefs and sightseeing at the Biscayne underwater park, go to the next page.
Sightseeing at Biscayne National Park
Visitors to Biscayne National Park may snorkel, scuba dive, kayak, or take boat tours among the subtropical waters and reefs. For the most part, the water is shallow -- less than ten feet between the keys and the mainland and increasing to 30 feet out among the reefs.
Nourished by the sun and the gently moving, warm-water currents, the reef systems are incredibly rich. Because the water is so shallow, it is a breeding ground for more than 200 kinds of marine creatures, including shrimp, spiny lobsters, sponges, and crabs. Looking into the shallow water, you might be able to see the colorful flash of a parrot fish swimming by, the bright glimmer of an angelfish, or the surprisingly graceful movements of an immense sea turtle.
Swimmers and divers can behold the exotic beauty of the reefs -- the crenelated surface of the brain coral, the widely branching elkhorn coral, and the bright colors of the fire coral. In addition, there are multitudes of small and large fish to observe, which include everything from schools of neon-bright hamlets to slow-moving solitary parrot fish. Other fauna include rays, sharks, barracudas, and moray eels. Biscayne Bay is also home to hundreds of manatees. With their gentle, doleful faces, these enormous mammals can grow as long as 13 feet and weigh a ton or more. Manatees use their front flippers to shove sea grasses and other underwater plants into their mouths. There are only about 1,000 of these great beasts left; all of them roam the waters of Florida.
For those unable to get into the water, tours in glass-bottom boats are conducted daily if surface winds are not too severe and bottom sediments are not too roiled. On these tours, visitors can float above rich green beds of sea grasses, which shelter such fascinating life-forms as sea urchins, sponges, sea worms, sea feathers, and sea whips, or they can head out farther into the magical fairy world of the coral reefs, where angel fish drift gently on the wave surge and the bright colors and unusual forms seem like something from a child's dream. One thing is certain: visit the legendary reefs of Biscayne once, and you will be sure to return.
Biscayne National Park Photo Opportunities
Unless you own an underwater camera, you won't be able to take pictures of the sea life you encounter. But there are plenty of other photo-worthy possibilities, including:
- Convoy Point: Walk the boardwalk out to the jetty for a beautiful view of the ocean. You'll see birds, boats, and maybe even a manatee or dolphin.
- Elliott Key: A pleasant hike along the seven-mile trail takes you through a tropical hardwood hammock of flowers, vines, and trees.
- Arsenicker Keys: This is a bird-watcher's delight. The shallow waters surrounding the Arsenicker Keys attract a large assortment of wading birds, such as the tricolored heron and the great egret. The mangrove forests populating Biscayne Bay are inhabited by dozens of bird varieties not seen anywhere else in the United States.
The coral reefs at Biscayne Bay teem with exotic, colorful life forms. One wonders about the construction of this amazing underwater community that supports such an astonishing array of life. On the next page, learn how these reefs were formed.
History: How the Coral Reefs in Biscayne Bay Were Formed
One of the main attractions of Biscayne National Park is the extensive community of underwater coral reefs. Coral reefs are formed over centuries as colonies of tiny polyps secrete an exoskeleton of calcium carbonate, or limestone, then live within the tiny nooks and crannies of the ever-growing formation. The accumulation of this skeletal material, broken and piled up by wave action, eventually produces a huge, rocky mass that can support an astonishing variety of animal and plant life.
Coral comes in many forms. As visitors to Biscayne tour the bay in glass-bottom boats, the floorshow includes giant brain coral and mountainous star coral. Some of these coral reefs are extremely tall, rising hundreds of feet from the seafloor, with branching shapes that reach out in every direction.
All the coral reefs in Biscayne Bay harbor an array of vibrantly colored fish that flit and flow around the gorgeous formations. You will see filefish, porcupine fish, angelfish, and sharks. Not all coral is hard as rock. In Biscayne Bay, you will also see soft corals, such as sea fans, rippling in the calm, clear water.
The History of Biscayne National Park
During the 17th century, this bay was the hideaway of the notorious pirate Black Caesar. He lured his prey with a tricky ruse of pretending to be adrift in an open boat. When passing ships stopped to rescue the pirate, his crew fell upon them in ambush. The Biscayne Bay pirates are now long gone; today, the waters are patrolled by manatees.
Like nearby Everglades National Park, Biscayne Bay was created by Congress under intense pressure from environmentalists, sportsmen, and other concerned citizens who wanted to save the bay from the threat of developers. In the 1960s, plans were made to build resorts and subdivisions on the northern keys and to put an oil refinery on the adjacent mainland. To prevent this from happening, Biscayne Bay was made a national monument in 1968. The protected area was expanded to its present size, which encompasses more keys and reefs, when it became a national park in 1980. Today, the park covers more than 170,000 acres.
An utterly unique environment in the United States, Biscayne National Park includes barrier islands, mangrove forests, and coral reefs. The wonders of the reef alone will make any visit to this underwater park unforgettable.
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