Visitors experience rich marine beauty and human history at Florida’s Biscayne National Park.
A snorkeler explores the aquamarine waters and vibrant coral reefs of Biscayne National Park. (Shaun Wolfe/National Park Service)
For many, the term “national park” conjures up images of snowcapped mountains and lush forests, sun-bleached deserts and rolling plains. Yet, some national parks in the United States contain barely any land at all. One of its most strikingly unique parks, in fact, consists of 95 percent water.
Biscayne National Park is located off the southeast tip of Florida, within sight of Miami’s bustling metropolis, and its magic resides in the space beyond where the beach ends and the water begins. Whether by motorboat or canoe, scuba dive or snorkeling expedition, visitors to the park can experience a world of marine beauty and diversity unlike any other.
The park’s attractions include crocodiles and sea turtles, playful manatees and rare, endangered butterflies. Below the water, intrepid swimmers can enjoy observing over 600 native species of fish, which range in size from the width of an acorn to the length of a motor boat. Bird watchers and photographers experiencing the park from above the water will be equally delighted, as Biscayne National Park’s skies are patrolled by various seabirds, multiple species of hawk, eagle and falcon, and brown pelicans.
The park’s amazing biodiversity stems from, and thrives within, its four main ecosystems.
Along the coast of the Florida mainland, park visitors will find lush mangrove forests, described by the National Park Service as reminiscent of the mysterious jungles seen in old movies. From the shoreline of the mangrove forests, visitors can see the second ecosystem, the southern portions of Biscayne Bay. It is a shallow body in which fresh water from mainland Florida mixes with salt water from the sea. Boaters, swimmers and divers regularly explore the rich views, expanses and depths of the bay’s crystalline waters.
The third ecosystem, made up of the northernmost Florida Keys islands, offers more frontiers and beaches to explore. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the fourth ecosystem, which consists of a portion of the world’s third-largest coral reef. Divers and snorkelers can experience a virtual underwater city of marine life, full of parrotfish and octopuses, and resplendent in colors. It was described in 1877 by Commodore Ralph Munroe as “a sort of liquid light, rather than water, so limpid and brilliant is it.”
Boca Chita Key, the most visited island in Biscayne National Park, located within sight of downtown Miami, as seen in the distance. (Judd Patterson/National Park Service)
Biscayne National Park’s natural richness is echoed by its human history, one marked by notable visitors ranging from pioneers to presidents. Ancient fossils and artifacts, including those found at the park’s Old Cutler archaeological campsite, show that humans inhabited the Biscayne area over 10,000 years ago. In roughly 500 B.C.E., an indigenous community, called the Tequesta, lived in Biscayne, creating complex cultures and trade networks, farming and crafting pottery, and also sustaining itself using Biscayne Bay’s natural resources. Tragically, within around 100 years of the arrival of European explorers in the 16th century, Biscayne’s indigenous population nearly disappeared as a result of diseases. Protected natural areas like Biscayne National Park may be the last, best chance to gain information about the area’s native population.
Biscayne’s human history is marked not just by sorrow, but also by inspiration. Israel Lafayette Jones, an African American born in 1858, settled in the Key Biscayne island as a young man, purchased the tiny island of Porgy Key for $300 (Rs. 20,000 approximately) and grew pineapples and key limes. Within a generation, his operation grew and his family became the United States’ largest key lime supplier. Jones’ son, Lancelot, later created a fishing guide business, through which he introduced many U.S. presidents, senators and industry leaders to the wonders of Biscayne Bay.
Perhaps most significant, though, was Lancelot’s decision to sell his land in Biscayne Bay to the National Park Service, rather than to real estate developers. His choice led to the area’s long-term preservation and the eventual founding of Biscayne National Park. Present-day visitors to the beautiful refuge, which Jones and Lancelot helped create, can access Porgy Key by boat and explore their home and farm at the Jones Family Historic District located within the park.
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.
A Marine Masterpiece
While national parks are a key element of American heritage, the United States is not the only country to officially protect areas of unique natural beauty. Case in point, India’s Marine National Park, situated on the southern coast of the Gulf of Kutch in the Jamnagar district of Gujarat.
Temperate, vast and diverse, the park is spread across 163 square kilometers. Its 42 islands lie amid an extensive network of coral reefs, significant amounts of which can be seen from the land when the gulf is at low tide. While Pirotan, Kalubhar and Narara are some of the best-known islands, Poshitra is an attraction among tourists for its marine biodiversity and for being a regular site for dolphins.
Marine National Park’s ecology is as stunning as its geography. Under, on and around the water, the park hosts multiple species of mollusks, sea turtles, prawns and sea snakes, as well as puffer fish, color-changing octopuses, dolphins and many more varieties of amazing aquatic creatures.
The park is spread across 163 square kilometers and its 42 islands are surrounded by reefs, which are revealed at low tide. (Photographs by Hani Amir/Courtesy Flickr)
From the islands’ sandy beaches, visitors can see over 70 species of terrestrial birds feed and frolic. Nearly 100 varieties of aquatic birds call the park home as well, making it a rich destination for wildlife photographers and birdwatchers alike.
Established in 1982, Marine National Park was the first park of its kind in India. Additional marine parks have been established in the years since its inception. Resident species like the painted stork, black-necked ibis and great Indian bustard are considered to be threatened—a key reason why the area’s national park designation is so important.
Travelers can access the park via ferry and may wish to time their visits so they are present in the park for low tide. The reason? As the water recedes and reefs, sands and wildlife are revealed, visitors can witness a momentarily unhidden world of vibrant and varied marine magic. —M.G.