By Henrylito D. Tacio
Within sight of downtown Miami, yet worlds away, there is a place that can be considered a living testimony of 10,000 years of human history — from pirates and shipwrecks to pineapple farmers and presidents.
That place is known as Biscayne National Park, which protects and preserves a nationally significant marine ecosystem with mangrove shorelines, a shallow bay, undeveloped islands, and living coral reefs. “The park has protected this unique underwater world for over 35 years,” says Dr. Bernhard Riegl, associate director of the National Coral Reef Institute and associate professor at the Nova Southeastern University.
Dr. Riegel was one of the marine experts who accompanied the journalists in visiting the park. The educational trip was part of the program designed for journalists who travelled half around the globe just to attend the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
A briefing statement from the National Park Service said that it was President Lyndon Johnson who signed the legislation that created the Biscayne National Monument on October 16, 1968. The monument was expanded in size and elevated to a national park status in June 1980.
The park, which encompasses 700 square kilometers, has the simple beauty of a child’s drawing. Clear blue water, bright yellow sun, big sky, dark green woodlands. Here and there a boat, a bird. Down under the water are seagrasses and coral reefs in different colors.
While land dominates in most parks, Biscayne is an exception. Here, water and sky overwhelm the scene in every direction, leaving the bits of low-lying land remote and insignificant (only 4 percent of the total area). This is paradise for marine life, water birds, boaters, anglers, snorkelers, and divers alike.
To explore the park, you have start from the Convoy Point, which contains a picnic area with tables and fire grills, a boat dock for trips out onto the bay, and a visitor’s center (which has theater/gallery, a bookstore and area which displays some exhibits).
The Convoy Point also provides beautiful views of Biscayne Bay, some small islands off the shore in the area. There is also a pleasant boardwalk along the waterfront. Looking inland from the boardwalk provides a view of the tranquil water of the inlet and the mangroves which line the coast.
According to our tour guide, the Biscayne National Park has four primary ecosystems: (1) a narrow fringe of mangrove forest along the mainland shoreline; (2) the southern expanse of Biscayne Bay; (3) the northernmost islands of the Florida Keys; and (4) the beginning of the third-largest coral reef in the world.
The park is home to the longest stretch of mangrove forest on Florida’s East Coast. The mangrove forest appears as a nearly impenetrable fortress. Perhaps a snake or mosquito can move through easily, but little else can. As I viewed the mangroves, I was reminded of the mangrove forests I saw when I visited Palawan some years back with then broadcast journalist Grace Padaca (who recently received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award).
In 1895, biologist Hugh Smith wrote: “The water of Biscayne Bay is exceedingly clear. In no part can one fail to clearly distinguish objects in the bottom.” Today, the shallow waters (about 13 feet deep at its maximum point and usually ranges from only about 4 to 10 feet) are still remarkably transparent. You can almost see everything – except when the water is covered by the lush seagrasses. You can also observe some protruding white sands forming sort of an island here and there.
The center of attraction of the park is still the ecologically-fragile coral reefs. Notes one science reporter after diving under the water: “The shallow water reefs are inundated with light and burgeoning with life. Brilliantly colorful tropical fish and other curious creatures populate the reefs.”
Along Biscayne’s reefs are more than 20 types of fish. Some are impressive in size, others in color. Their appearances and behavior are as exotic as their names – stoplight parrotfish, finger garlic sponge, goosehead scorpion fish, princess venus, peppermint goby. Lobsters and crabs, including the giant land crab (which can grow to a 12-inch clawtip to clawtip measurement) are found in the park.
Indeed, the water is teeming with different marine species. In fact, if you added up all the different kinds of vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) in Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite, you still wouldn’t have the number of fish found in Biscayne National Park.
Although the park was established for its natural history, signs of people and the many ways they have used these lands and waters is everywhere. Legends of pirates and buried treasure abound. Shipwrecks, victims of high seas, and treacherous reefs lie offshore. Fortune hunters, bootleggers, artists, gamblers, millionaires, and four American presidents have spent time on the keys of Biscayne.
The park is open to everyone throughout the year and offers boat tours, where visitors can also do scuba diving in some important areas. Fishing, boating, canoeing, and kayaking are also allowed.
Like most spots frequented by tourists and visitors, the Biscayne National Park is not spared from destruction. Fish and animals can be injured or killed by trash in the water. Seagrasses can be torn up by boats; ditto for coral reefs. “A coral reef is alive,” says the US National Park Service. “If you boat hits a reef, it will damage your boat, scar the reef, and kill coral animals.”
Unknowingly, coral reefs in the area are in decline. Gary Davis, a coastal conservation consultant of the US National Park Service, said that the causes of coral decline in the park include overfishing, pollution, ship groundings and anchor damage, disease outbreaks, and global climate change.
Biologist Smith, writing in 1895, considered the Biscayne Bay as “one of the finest bodies of water on the coast of Florida.” In another hundred years – if well protected – it still could be. — ###