Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Biscayne National Park, Florida

Florida's Biscayne National Park is within sight of downtown Miami, yet worlds away. The park protects one of the most extensive coral reef tracts in the world, the longest stretch of mangrove forest on the east coast, the clear, shallow aquamarine waters of Biscayne Bay, the emerald islands of the northernmost Florida Keys, and 10,000 years of human history, from pirates and shipwrecks to pineapple farmers and presidents.

Originally proposed for inclusion in Everglades National Park, Biscayne Bay was cut from the proposed park to ensure Everglades' establishment. It remained undeveloped until the 1960s when a series of proposals were made to develop the keys in the manner of Miami Beach and to construct a deepwater seaport for bulk cargo, along with refinery and petrochemical facilities on the mainland shore of Biscayne Bay. Through the 1960s and 1970s, two fossil-fueled power plants and two nuclear power plants were built on the bay shores.

A backlash against development led to the 1968 designation of Biscayne National Monument. The preserved area was expanded in 1980 when it achieved  national park status.

Elliott Key is the park's largest island, the largest key north of Key Largo, and the first of the true Florida Keys. It was used for millennia by the Sequestra tribe and later by fishermen, pirates, and escaped slaves. Elliott Key and other islands in Biscayne National Park were settled under the Homestead Act of 1862. This law gave free land to settlers willing to live on and farm a piece of land for five years.

For 50 years, four generations of the Sweeting family thrived on Elliott Key, raising pineapples and limes, salvaging wrecked ships, going to school, worshipping, and playing at the northern end of Florida's Keys.  Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Elliott Key was used as a training ground for infiltrators into Fidel Castro's Cuba by the Central Intelligence Agency and by Cuban exile groups.

Elliot Key is formed from fossilized coral reef while the islands farther north in the park are transitional islands of coral and sand.

Unlike many units of the National Park system that can be fully experienced in a car or on foot, Biscayne National Park has 95% of its 172,000 acres covered by water and thus boating is the best way to experience the park. Visitors with boats have full access to most of the park, although the shallow nature of the bay and reefs can preclude larger vessels. The offshore portion of the park includes the northernmost region of the Florida Reef, one of the largest coral reefs in the world. The green line shows the borders of the park and reinforces how the vast majority of the park is water (click map to enlarge.)

Biscayne National Park protects four distinct ecosystems: the shoreline mangrove swamp, the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the coral limestone keys, and the offshore Florida Reef. The shoreline swamps of the mainland and islands provide a nursery for larval and juvenile fish, mollusck and crustaceans. The bay waters harbor immature and adult fish, seagrass beds, sponges, soft corals, and manatees. The keys are covered with tropical vegetation including endangered cacti and palms and their beaches provide nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles. Offshore reefs and waters harbor more than 200 species of fish, pelagic birds, whales, and hard corals. It is habitat for sixteen endangered species, including Schaus' swallowtail butterflies,  Smalltooth sawfish, manatees, and Hawksbill sea turtles. Biscayne also has a small population of threatened American crocodiles and a few American alligators

The people of the Glades culture inhabited the Biscayne Bay region as early as 10,000 years ago before rising sea levels filled the bay. The people occupied the islands and shoreline from about 4,000 years before the present to the 16th century when the Spanish took possession of Florida. Reefs claimed ships from Spanish times through the 20th century, with more than 40 documented wrecks within the park's boundaries.

While the park's islands were farmed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their rocky soil and periodic hurricanes made agriculture difficult to sustain. In the early 20th century the islands became secluded destinations for wealthy Miamians who built getaway homes, social clubs, and elaborate private retreats. The amphibious community of Stiltsville was established in the 1930s in the shoals of northern Biscayne Bay, taking advantage of its remoteness from land to offer offshore gambling and alcohol during Prohibition. Below is Boca Chita Key with downtown Miami in the background...

If you only have a short while, or cannot go out on a boat, the Convoy Point area offers a variety of land-based and indoor opportunities to get to know the park. The park's Dante Fascell Visitor Center may be reached from the Florida Turnpike or from US-1.

A boat trip over the park's coral reef can be a great experience, but to really see the reef, get in the water. It's not only fun, but you'll also be able to see things folks up on the boat can only imagine! This Tiny Starfish was spotted in Jones Lagoon...

...as was this upside-down jellyfish...

Israel Lafayette Jones purchased land on Porgy Key at the southern end of Biscayne National Park in 1898. He, his wife Moselle, and their sons Arthur and Lancelot carved out a life for themselves by farming pineapples and key limes, eventually owning most of the land surrounding Jones Lagoon. That initial $300 investment in land led to total resale value of nearly $1.5 million, making them millionaires. Jones Lagoon is a remote area in the Southern part of Biscayne National Park with beautiful mangrove-bordered waterways to explore as seen in this photo...

John Muir wrote of this area: "However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill, hushed and awe-stricken, before phenomena wholly new to you."

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