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The Florida Keys

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
IUCN Category V (Protected Landscape/Seascape)

Location: Monroe County, Florida, USA
Nearest city: Key Largo, Florida
Coordinates: 25°07′12″N, 80°24′18″W
Area: 53,000 acres
Established: 1963
Total Visitation: 1,000,000 (in 2004)
Governing body: National Park Service / Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Nonbreeding adult brown pelican amidst a mangrove forest at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a Florida State Park located on Key Largo in Florida, and includes approximately 70 nautical square miles of adjacent Atlantic Ocean waters. It was the first underwater park in the United States. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 14, 1972. The primary attractions of the park are the coral reefs and their associated marine life.

In Fiscal Year 2004 the park had more than a million visitors, making it the most popular park in the Florida State Parks system.

The Florida Keys have the only living coral reef formations in the continental United States. Plans to include the reefs off of Key Largo in a park started in the 1930s, when a state sanctioned Everglades National Park Commission proposed a national park for the Everglades that would have included most of Key Largo and the reefs to the east of Key Largo. Opposition from property owners, outdoors men, and Monroe County Commissioners stopped the plan. When Everglades National Park was created in 1947, the boundaries did not include Key Largo or any of the reefs.

By the late 1950s people were growing aware of severe damage occurring to the reefs along the Florida Keys. Seashells, corals, sponges, sea horses, and other marine life were being hammered, chiseled, and even dynamited from the reefs to provide souvenirs for tourists. Dr. Gilbert Voss of the Marine Institute of Miami and John D. Pennekamp, an editor with the Miami Herald, teamed up to lead a fight to protect the reefs from further damage. Pennekamp had strong credentials for the fight. He had been active in establishing Everglades National Park, had been the first chairman of the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials and had been a consultant with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The effort led by Dr. Voss and Mr. Pennekamp led the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials to designate the reefs off Key Largo that were in state-controlled waters as a permanent preserve. In the spring of 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the adjacent Federally-controlled area of the reefs as the Key Largo Coral Reef Preserve. Florida Governor Leroy Collins later changed the name of the park to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in recognition of John Pennekamp's efforts to save marine life. A land base and access to U.S. 1 (the Overseas Highway) were acquired by purchase and donation. The park opened in 1963.

Recreational activities
The reefs may be viewed from glass-bottom boats, or by snorkeling or scuba diving. Other activities available in the park are canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, picnicking, swimming and wildlife viewing. The visitor center has a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium and theater showing nature videos. Full-facility and youth/group campgrounds are available.

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