KEY LARGO (FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU) Noted divers descended on an iconic underwater statue Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of America’s first underwater preserve.
Famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle joined Pat Wells, manager of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and Billy Causey, regional director for NOAA’s national marine sanctuaries in placing a commemorative garland on the Christ of the Abyss statue, an icon for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, that was originally dedicated Dec. 10, 1960.
“It’s the oldest underwater park … not just in Florida … not just in the United States, but it set a precedent for the world,” said Earle. “This protected area where even the fish have a safe haven, is a gift to the world.”
The park encompasses some 63,845 acres covering uplands and submerged areas.
The celebration continues Saturday with free admission to the park – located at mile marker 102.5 on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway — from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Scheduled activities include an Environmental Expo featuring ecological and historical exhibits, oral histories shared by past park managers and staff as well as a featured keynote presentation by Earle.
Slated for the expo are some 40 organizations representing Florida Keys and national conservation groups including the Coral Restoration Foundation, The Dolphin Research Center, The Turtle Hospital, History of Diving Museum, and the Florida Park Service.
Visitors also can enjoy the park’s popular water activities — at regular concession prices — including viewing the reef on glass-bottom-boat or snorkel and scuba tours, as well as canoeing and kayaking on mangrove-lined waterways.
A visitor center featuring a refurbished 30,000-gallon aquarium, as well as nature trails, picnic pavilions and two beaches round out the variety of offerings at Pennekamp.