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America's National Parks

Underwater Exploration at Biscayne National Park

Underwater diversity at Biscayne National Park
Underwater diversity at Biscayne National Park
Underwater Explorations at Biscayne National Park
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This week on our national parks journey, we head to southern Florida.

Here, you will find blue-green seas, marine wildlife, and islands that hold thousands of years of human history.

Welcome to Biscayne National Park!

Biscayne is not very far from the lights, noise and excitement of downtown Miami. But it has a very different atmosphere from the big city.

Biscayne National Park was established as a national monument in 1968. It became a national park in 1980. That year, its size also increased.

The park now covers more than 70,000 hectares. It includes the northern part of the world-famous Florida Keys. Keys are low-lying islands or reefs.

If you enjoy water, Biscayne is the park for you. Ninety-five percent of the park is water. Many kinds of animals live in these waters. Some of them are threatened or endangered.

You will find the huge, gentle West Indian manatee, the less gentle American crocodile, several kinds of sea turtles, and more than 500 species of fish.

A sea turtle at Biscayne National Park
A sea turtle at Biscayne National Park

Four ecosystems come together here, which is what makes the park so diverse. The blending ecosystems create “edge communities.” These edge communities support a huge array of wildlife.

A snorkeler explores a reef
A snorkeler explores a reef

The underwater diversity is what attracts most people to Biscayne National Park. Many visitors come here to snorkel or scuba dive in Biscayne’s clear and warm waters.

Human history

Human history at Biscyane begins more than 10,000 years ago.

Scientists say evidence of the area’s earliest people is mostly underwater now, as water levels have risen over time.

Within the last 3,000 years, people began to settle in the area. Scientists continue to learn about these people by examining the big hills of shells they left behind. The shells contain other waste, too, including early tools and housewares.

As the population grew, it divided into separate cultures. The groups began making pottery and created trade networks. These Native Americans are called the Tequesta.

The Tequesta depended on the rich food source of the sea to survive. They were not centered on farming, which requires huge amounts of time. So the Tequesta had more time than other natives for art and religion. Very complex social structures developed as a result.

European explorers began arriving in the area in the early 1500s. They brought with them diseases like smallpox and measles. Over time, these diseases killed huge numbers of Florida’s natives.

Early explorers arrived in the area on ships. The reefs and rough waters made it difficult for ship captains. Biscayne’s waters contain more than 50 shipwrecks. Scuba divers today can explore six of them.

Among them is the Erl King, which sank in 1891. It was built in 1865.

Erl King was mostly used to transport goods, but it also carried rich passengers. In its first few years of service, it was used for trading between China and Australia. The ship hit Long Reef as it sailed to New Orleans from England. Its machinery and other parts were saved, but Erl King itself sank to the sea floor.

Another shipwreck that scuba divers can explore is the Lugano. The British steamship sank in 1913. At the time of its sinking, it was the largest ship ever to wreck in the Florida Keys. It was traveling to Havana, Cuba, carrying goods and more than 100 passengers. Most of them were Spaniards immigrating to Cuba.

The Lugano shipwreck site
The Lugano shipwreck site

High winds and heavy seas sent the ship far off course. A collision with Long Reef damaged the ship. Much of the cargo and all of the passengers were safely removed from the ship. The captain and crew remained aboard.

Many people tried to remove the water from Lugano and repair it. But, after several weeks, they abandoned their efforts.

Today, the Lugano remains along Long Reef, almost 8 meters below water.

Exploring the park

Many visitors to Biscayne National Park choose to explore underwater.

Guides lead snorkeling and scuba diving trips. These give visitors the chance to get up close to the park’s underwater wildlife as well as its shipwrecks.

A National Park Service boat in Biscayne Bay
A National Park Service boat in Biscayne Bay

Visitors can also explore the park on a boat.

Canoeing and kayaking are great ways to enjoy Biscayne’s mangrove forests. Mangroves are little trees that grow in coastal waters.

People canoe through Jones Lagoon and a red mangrove forest
People canoe through Jones Lagoon and a red mangrove forest

Many people take a kayak or canoe around the islands and lagoons.

At Elliot Key, visitors can set up camp and sleep in the wild.

At Boca Chita Key, visitors can explore a lighthouse. The lighthouse has become a symbol of Biscayne National Park. It was built in the 1930s by Mark Honeywell, one of the island’s former owners.

The deck at the top of the 20-meter-tall lighthouse provides beautiful views of the ocean and the nearby islands.

The lighthouse on Boca Chita Key, with a view of the Miami Skyline
The lighthouse on Boca Chita Key, with a view of the Miami Skyline

The top of the lighthouse also offers views of Miami Beach’s famous skyline.

But, visitors to Biscayne National Park probably are not there to see skyscrapers and city lights. The beauty in Biscayne is quiet waters, rustling mangroves and, if you’re lucky, a visit with a manatee.

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Ashley Thompson wrote this report with materials from the National Park Service. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

marine - adj. of or relating to the sea or the plants and animals that live in the sea

key - n. a low island or reef

array - n. a large group or number of things — usually singular

network - n. a group of people or organizations that are closely connected and that work with each other

cargo - n. something that is carried from one place to another by boat, airplane, etc.

mangrove - n. a tropical tree that has roots which grow from its branches and that grows in swamps or shallow salt water

canoe - v. to go or travel in a canoe, a long narrow boat that is moved by a paddle with one blade

kayak - v. to go or travel in a kayak, a long narrow boat that is moved by a paddle with two blades

America’s 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, formed the National Park Service in 1916 to “protect the wild and wonderful landscapes” in the United States.

Today, the National Park Service protects over 400 parks and historical sites from coast to coast. Every week, VOA Learning English will profile one of the sites within the National Park Service.