Efforts to preserve an ecosystem continue to build, even as sightseers indulge in one of the 'last great places'

THE KEYS TO FLORIDA

December 06, 1992|By Sharon Nicholas | Sharon Nicholas,Contributing Writer

Bogart and Bacall may have put Key Largo on the map with their 1948 movie of the same name. But, in fact, their battles against gangster Edward G. Robinson and a hurricane were characteristic only of the tempestuous action the island had seen during the previous two centuries.

In 1763, the British swapped New World territories with Spain -- Havana for Florida. Along with the Florida peninsula, Britain got a string of islands to the southeast, the Keys, a challenging property to manage. British fighting ships constantly ran aground on the shallow reef; British intrusion was challenged by native Calusa tribes.

Finally, after losing the war to the Colonies, Britain gave Florida back to the Spanish, to keep it from the upstart United States, which bought the region a few years later anyway for $5 million.

Pirates, including Blackbeard and the Haitian Black Caesar, ruled the waterways. Shipwreck salvage was such a booming business that lighthouse construction was thwarted until the mid-1800s.

Later, a seagoing railroad that linked the Keys to the mainland was given an unceremonious burial in the sea by a Depression-era hurricane.

Throughout the turmoil, a thriving native community was trying to ignore it all. Millions of animals, living in perfect harmony with as many plants and fishes, had called this home for thousands of years. They sculpted otherworldly gardens across more than 200 square miles off the eastern coast of Key Largo -- under the sea.

They were corals. And today they form the only living coral reef off the Continental United States.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the country's first underwater preserve, protects the reef three miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. government takes over at that point, with the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, managing the wildlife for another five miles out. Just as with other state and national parks, the areas are open to the public. In 1991, the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental group, named the Keys' tropical ecosystem one of the 12 "Last Great (Wild) Places" in the Western Hemisphere.

The popularity of the region has led to Key Largo's promoting itself as the "Sport Diving Capital of the World." Scuba gear, however, isn't required or even the norm. Seventy percent of the million annual visitors view the sights while snorkeling, and glass-bottom boats accommodate non-swimmers.

Hard corals form the reef's foundation and much of the ocean's )) floor here. Four hundred species inhabit the area, with microscopic plants living within many, giving them an array of unusual colors.

Staghorn corals extend their antlers like big-game trophies in shades of yellow, orange, red and brown; the granddaddies reach tree size. Brain corals covered with twisting coiled ridges glow in lime greens and get to be the size of boulders, with a few said to attain Volkswagen dimensions.

Soft corals attach to the hard corals. Lacy lavender sea fans sway with the currents. Lemony transparent sea fingers wave endlessly. Other cousins form blue-ribbon-caliber blossoms that would steal the show in botanical garden displays.

Sponges add to the decor with vases, tubes and fiery clusters, while long blades of turtle grass soften the scene.

More active community members also go about their daily business. Three hundred species of fish parade around in a perpetual beauty contest, the stunning yellow and black Rock Beauty angelfish competing against the midnight blue of an ugly-mugged parrotfish or against the irresistible cuteness of a dainty butterfly fish. Now and then, a barracuda slices through, or a harmless (so guides tell you) species of shark.

Although the parks cover hundreds of square miles, only about a dozen popular sightseeing spots attract most of the sightseers, an average of 3,000 people each day. A mooring buoy system, allowing boats to tie up, protects the coral from anchors, but during high season, the buoys and nearby dive spots can suffer rush-hour symptoms.

Avoiding the traffic

The heaviest traffic can be avoided, however. The Carysfort Lighthouse region (named after a British 20-gun frigate that, before the Revolutionary War, ran "a-coral" nearly seven miles from where the lighthouse now stands) marks the northern rim of the most frequented sites. It often sees less than 20 percent of the boats and divers found elsewhere, a result of its distance from most dive shops. The nearest shop, and the only one for 10 miles, is Ocean Reef Dive Shop, a part of the 4,000-acre Ocean Reef Club covering the entire northern tip of Key Largo.

Protecting the ecosystem

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