After a day in Fort Lauderdale that included a quick Everglades tour with some cool wildlife sightings, Corrie and I hopped in our convertible (road trippin’ in style, y’all!) and headed to Key Largo. Little did we know we’d have even more wildlife encounters the very next day…
But first, a drink by the water, of course!
We caught a kick-ass waterfront sunset at Snook’s Bayside Restaurant, fruity drinks in hand. If you’re lucky (or not, depending on your perspective), the entertainment will fall ill and ask you to step in and help sing (sorry, no incriminating photos to be posted)!
All sung out (you’ll just have to trust me on this one), we checked into our room at The Pelican and prepared for the next day’s adventure: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Honestly, our first goal was to lay out and get a little sun, then head to the park after. But when we asked where the nearest beach was, we were told there weren’t any good “laying out” beaches in the area unless we wanted to drive a couple dozen miles south. Say whaaaa…??
Obvi, that was a no go. We weren’t gonna leave Key Largo to find a beach, then drive back, only to head south again the next day to continue our Keys road trip. We knew that Pennekamp Park, just a couple minutes down the road, had a small beach, so we’d lay out there. We planned to kayak there later in the day anyway, so we figured we’d kill 2 birds with one stone.
At the park, Canon Beach has a few hundred feet of waterfront where folks can swim, so we set up there. And at that point, I understood. It’s really not what you think of when you think “beach.” Rather than soft, fluffy sand we were laying on little rocks and pebbles. But hey, we were warned! It wasn’t that uncomfortable, though. Besides a few pokes from the odd sharp rock, we were able to check off the tanning that was at the top of our list (#lifegoals, y’all).
Enter wildlife encounter #1. While we were catching some rays, a white ibis crept over to check us out. It got unusually close to us (gave me a sneaking feeling that visitors probably feed the little guy… a big no-no!). While it’s a common wading bird in the keys, it was unique to us, so made for an exciting and novel encounter.
Being on a schedule wasn’t on the menu that day, so we passed on the various guided snorkel and scuba trips the park offers during specific times. Side note: dumb decision! The 70 square mile under-water park provides easy access to the only living coral reef in the lower 48. It also borders the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, adding another 100 square miles of reefs, sea grass, fish and other marine life right at your frikkin’ fingertips.
It’s really not something to be missed. Especially by a wildlife biologist… who’s thus far spent most of her career working on marine and fisheries issues. What can I say… I’m an idiot.
Still got some snorkeling in, though! There’s an artificial shipwreck just 100 feet off shore at Canon Beach that has remnants of an actual Spanish shipwreck, so I threw on a mask and went to take a look. To my surprise it was actually pretty cool! Wasn’t sure what I’d see so close to shore, but among the large anchors and cannon-like sunken structures, there were plenty of little reef fish, some substantial parrotfish, lots of seagrass and submerged aquatic vegetation, and even several species of coral.
I took a couple dives to look at it all up close, but even when floating up at the surface, I had no trouble seeing every colorful detail. The water here was amazingly clear.
After we’d sufficiently baked our butts, we grabbed a couple kayaks ($30 for a half-day rental… not bad) and went to see what we could discover among the park’s 50 miles of mangroves. And that’s when it happened…
I thought it might be too early in the season, but as we were loading our gear into the kayaks someone pointed out a manatee, right there at the dock where we were putting in. Right under me. It was literally a foot from where I was about to slip into my kayak, and I hadn’t even noticed! I was so thrilled, I thought I might pee my pants swimsuit.
I didn’t (sorry, woulda made for a good laugh). But it was so unexpected. The night before we’d asked as many people as possible if there had been any manatee sightings recently and everyone said no. So, I couldn’t believe our luck!
Well, it’s pretty hard to top that (thanks, Captain obvious). But the rest of the day still held some cool encounters. On our kayak tour we again saw tons of fish and some pretty cool submerged vegetation in among the mangroves, and even two stingrays we accidentally disturbed with our paddling!
Having spent most of my time on the coasts of Virginia and North and South Carolina, I wasn’t used to being able to see the ocean floor, even in water this shallow. But here, whether it was 6 inches or 60 feet, you could see clear to the bottom. It was the most fun, peaceful, relaxing paddle (errrrrrr, half paddle/half float) we could’ve hoped for.
Perfectly clear water, the start of a good tan, a snorkel around a “shipwreck,” a paddle through the mangroves, colorful reef fish, a white ibis, stingrays, and a manatee… Whew! Not bad for one afternoon!
If you go
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is open every day, 8am to sunset. Located in Key Largo at 102601 Overseas Highway (or mm 102.5), it’s easy to find. A super-reasonable $8 entrance fee gets you access to the beach (including the faux shipwreck), swimming, trails, guided nature walks, and the Visitor Center (which houses a huge 30,000 gallon aquarium exhibit!) and Concession buildings.
You should definitely make reservations if you want to take a snorkel/scuba/glass-bottom boat tour or do a boat rental (we didn’t, but just lucked out that there were kayaks available when we showed up. February is a busy month). Visit their website for all they offer – it’s a lot!
For more on state/national parks in the Keys, check out my friend Aireona’s post Beyond the Overseas Highway!
Also check out Snook’s Bayside Restaurant for a good sunset and The Pelican for budget-friendly accommodation (budget-friendly… if you want luxury, look elsewhere) – they offer cottages (i.e. standard rooms) and suites (includes kitchens and sitting rooms), and breakfast is included. Enjoy!