PREPARE TO BE DAZZLED BY BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK
Biscayne National Park is not like most national parks where land is the dominant feature. Here, on the southeast edge of the Florida peninsula, water takes center stage, covering 95 percent of the park’s geographic area. It is a subtropical playground made up of mangrove beaches, a warm shallow bay and small islands or islands.
Biscayne was first established as a national monument in 1968, later expanded to its current 173,000 acres and designated a national park in 1980.
FIND A WATERFALL IN BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK
The blue-green water of the bay is incredibly clean and crystal clear. In addition, the Caribbean climate offers plenty of sunshine and abundant rainfall throughout the year. It is a haven for marine life.
The bay, which contains the treasures of the sea, serves as a home for many species while serving as a temporary way station and feeding ground for others. Of course, it is also an excellent recreational destination for water sports enthusiasts, anglers, snorkelers and divers.
One of the more unique creatures that visit the bay in the winter is the endangered manatee. This gentle giant, whose closest relative, believe it or not, is an elephant, comes to eat seaweed.
These mostly plant-eating mammals average more than a thousand pounds, and there are as many as 3,500 of them.
They can hold their breath for up to twenty minutes and have flat teeth and no eyelids. And one of the most interesting facts about them is that females help each other during childbirth, like a midwife.
I saw several manatees while visiting Biscayne National Park and their size was breathtaking. They are giant, cheeky things of beauty and I found it so fun to watch, especially when they were doing the tummy wraps.
EXPLORE BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK THROUGH ECO-TOUR
The best way to get to know the park is to get in the water. The Biscayne National Park Institute offers several guided nature tours that you can book online in advance of your visit. There is everything from sailing and boat cruises to island stops to kayaking adventures to snorkeling and diving.
Most tours depart from the Dante Fascelli Visitor Center at Convoy Point in Homestead, although some depart from Miami and Coconut Grove. The visitor center has a small museum and gallery.
Inside the museum are several exhibits and hands-on exhibits related to the park’s ecosystems. At the same time, the gallery presents the works of contemporary artists inspired by the beauty of the area, who want to draw attention to the ecological issues affecting the marine environment.
KAYAK THROUGH THE MANGROVES
From the Biscayne National Park Visitor Center, I took the naturalist-led “Paddle the Mangroves and Seagrass Meadows” tour because I wanted to explore this area more closely by kayak.
I was told that the park has one of the longest continuous banks of mangroves on the east coast of the country. The trees provide a habitat for birds, tree shrimp, mangrove snakes, juvenile fish, and several rare species of flora and fauna.
Years ago, mangroves were considered useless and “wasteland”. However, we now know how important they are to nature, providing shelter and food for marine animals and birds. They also prevent the water from being contaminated by soil pollutants and act as a protective barrier against weather and erosion.
These super trees can be red, black or white and have a unique look. The red roots are stick-like and climb out of the water. The black ones remind me of cigar sticks stuck in mud.
Navigating our kayaks through the water trails in the middle of the mangroves was challenging at times. The corridors were very narrow and it was easy to hold on to gnarled branches and roots.
The forest seemed impenetrable and dark, and it was hard to see any signs of life. Although I saw an iguana on a branch, hidden in camouflage. The area was shrouded in mystery, giving it a slightly eerie feel.
After exploring the mangrove forests, we had time to go around the bay on our own. We admired the scenery and enjoyed being able to move freely, without the constraints of the labyrinth entwined by mangroves.
AVAILABLE BOCA CHITA HISTORIC KEY
One day I decided to join the “Boca Chita Key and Biscayne Bay” boat cruise. The tour started at Deering Estate. The property was Charles Deering’s winter home in the 1920s and is now a cultural property listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Deering, the first president of the International Harvester Company, was a noted Chicago industrialist, philanthropist, environmentalist, and art collector. One of the main reasons he bought the house and later built it elsewhere was to display his prized art collection.
Before or after the boat trip you can take a tour of the houses on your own. Inside, you’ll find items from Deering’s original collection, though most of them have been donated to the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University.
Other antiques you see represent style and era. It’s easy to see why Deering chose this special location, as the views of the bay are spectacular and the surroundings peaceful.
On the way to Boca Chita Key, our naturalist guide shared information about Deering Estate, Biscayne Bay, and Boca Chita. This key is the easiest island in the park because it is closest to the city of Miami.
THE HONEYWELL HERITAGE
Mark Honeywell, an Indiana man who founded and served as CEO of Honeywell Incorporated, owned Boca Chita from 1937-1945. He built many of the island’s structures, including a “chapel,” a lighthouse, pump house, and picnic tables.
The 20 meter high lighthouse is made of coral rock. It was created as a reference point for Honeywell’s captain as he navigated in and out of the area.
Honeywell chaired the Committee of 100, a group of the country’s wealthy investors and industrialists.
The group met to discuss current affairs and once a year the members held an annual party in Boca Chita. It was always a lavish affair with a cannon returned to welcome distinguished guests.
When Honeywell’s wife died, he sold Boca Chita. Today it is owned and operated by the National Park Service, and anyone can visit the site by boat and even camp there.
The lighthouse is open when the park rangers are there. Climb the lookout tower at the top for a perfect view of the area and walk the path around this Robinson Crusoe-esque island.