KEY LARGO — In the 1950s, the continental United States’ only living barrier reef was under attack.
Divers armed with chisels, hammers and even dynamite were harvesting barge loads of colorful coral and queen conch for curio shops and roadside vendors.
Unbridled spearfishing, unregulated marine life collecting and heavy anchors also were damaging the unique and important marine resource located a few miles offshore of the Florida Keys.
In 1960, the hammering, chiseling, blasting and spearfishing stopped — at least on 75 square miles of lush wonderland designated as the world’s first underwater park.
Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park began celebrating its milestone 50th birthday on Dec. 1 with a series of events, including one under the sea at the world-famous Christ of the Abyss statute, that will run through Dec. 11. The festivities will highlight the park’s beauty, diversity and pioneering history.
“We had grand terrestrial national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but focusing on the underwater world had not been done before,” said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
Seeing the need
Renowned underwater photographer Stephen Frink, who is based in Key Largo, said a half century ago it took visionaries to see the need for such a marine preserve.
“Nobody was thinking about protecting the ocean at that time because not many people put their head under the water with a facemask,” Frink said.
Actually a select few were thinking about protecting the ocean and its fragile floor. One of them was Dr. Gilbert Voss, a University of Miami professor of biology. He sounded the alarm at a 1957 biological conference in South Florida. The call to action was answered by a group of conservationists, politicians and Keys’ heavyhitters.
Leadership was provided by John D. Pennekamp, associate editor of the Miami Herald. A decade earlier, he had been instrumental in the in the establishment of Everglades National Park.
He landed the needed funding from several state legislators during a boozy, 10-cent minimum poker game in which his luck included winning one hand with four kings.
“And my dad was a self-proclaimed lousy poker player,” John Pennekamp Jr. said.
Pennekamp’s behind-the-scenes lobbying and fiery newspaper editorials worked again, this time for a park that preserved the precious marine ecosystem. With the state owning waters only to the three-mile line and most of the reef located further offshore, the park required the transfer of federal water to the state. President
Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the transfer. Causey and Frink agreed that Pennekamp park served as a’’shining example of marine conservation’’ and set the stage for future preservation and protection of the underwater world.
“As Pennekamp succeeded with artificial reef programs, mooring buoys, repopulation of corals and other initiatives to enhance the specific environment, other places started to get smart,” Frink said.
The park originally protected just 75 square miles underwater, less than 10 percent of the reef tract that runs from near Miami to the Dry Tortugas. But it led to many more protected marine areas, including the 2,900-square-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Pennekamp park was dedicated on Dec. 10, 1960. Gov. LeRoy Collins told the large crowd that it would be a “benefit to generations forever.”
It didn’t take long for the new underwater park to capture the imagination of the public and the press.
When the park’s land base opened to the public in 1963, tourists flocked to take the glass bottom boat rides and other trips to see the sponges, lobsters, brain coral, sea fans and beautiful tropical fish of the reef. There also was a swell of national media coverage on television and in newspapers and magazines, according to Pennekamp’s first park manager, Ellison Hardee.
‘’They even had me on national TV,” Hardee recalled earlier this month. “I flew up to New York with my wife to be on To tell the Truth.”
The show featured a panel of celebrities attempting to identify a contestant with an unusual occupation or experience among two imposters.
The 1964-67 NBC TV show Flipper, about a bottlenose dolphin who was the wild pet of a park warden and his children, used a set based on Pennekamp.
‘’Their patrol boat was the exact same as our patrol boat,” Hardee said. “But I was not as tall and good looking as the warden, my counterpart on the show.”
The park, which attracted 721,000 visitors last year, began with no land base. Pennekamp again was instrumental. He worked to acquire 74 upland acres. His passion helped convince Radford Crane to forego a firm sale offer of $141,000 from a private buyer and instead donate the land to the park, according to Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson.
Hardee said the park’s early days were an especially exciting time for those who loved the mystery of the aquatic world, which was being explored in greater depth with the increased popularity of scuba diving.
Still, his most notable accomplishment was securing the resting spot for a non-natural attraction — Christ of the Abyss. In 1961, the nearly nine-foot tall, 4-000-pound bronze statue was donated to the Underwater Society of America by Italian skin diving enthusiast Egidi Cressi. It was a duplicate of one resting in the Mediterranean Sea.
The resting site at Pennekamp was chosen near the Dry Rocks reef, four miles offshore and in 25 feet of water so it can be viewed from the surface.
In 1965, a barge transported the statute to the site, where it was secured on a 20,000-pound base. The project took months.
“The entire time, I said, ‘Oh my goodness’,” Hardee recalled.’’We didn’t know it couldn’t be done so we went ahead and did it utilizing standard carpenter tools. It’s quite an impressive sight.”
The statue has stood the test of time and the wrath of Hurricane Betsy, which struck just a few weeks after it was secured to the ocean bottom. As soon as the Category 3 storm passed, Hardee and his assistant Johnny Johnston navigated rough seas to see if Christ had survived.
With visibility still bad from the churned waters, Johnston dove into the water and surfaced with the good news.
“We were relieved and headed home,” Hardee recalled. “I’m sure it’s been enjoyed and appreciated by millions of people since then.”
In 1970, Lawton ‘Walkin’ Lawton’’ Chiles and his blistered feet walked into Pennekamp park, ending his 92-day trek across Florida that ultimately propelled him to the Florida governorship.
‘Wild and wooly’
In the 1980s, when George L. Jones first worked at Pennekamp as an assistant manager, he described the place as “wild and wooly.”
Drug smugglers loved to offload along its 25 miles of shoreline and secluded mangrove islands, Jones said. So did illegal immigrants.
He also dealt with the 1984 grounding of the 400-foot Wellwood freighter, which destroyed large amounts of coral near the popular dive sight Molasses Reef.
“When I was there, we also felt like we could make a real big difference,” said Jones, whose tenure included serving as Pennekamp’ manager in the 1990s and later as its district manager.
Research was done on the effects of nearshore nutrients on the reef. Groundbreaking coral restoration began due to all the groundings. Pennekamp was one of the first places to implement closed areas for the protection of seagrass, the habitat for many juvenile species.
And John Halas, now the Upper Keys National Marine Sanctuary manager, worked on the creation of mooring buoys, which gave commercial and private boats an alternative to dropping heavy anchors near sensitive marine structure.
‘’Even when people were trying not to cause damage, anchor damage was inevitable with wind and currents,” Halas said.
Frink, the underwater photographer, calls Halas “The Johnny Appleseed of mooring buoys worldwide.” Halas can not attend the Pennekamp 50th celebration because he will be on a trip to help implement them in Kenya and Tanzania.
For the past few months, workers have been scrambling to spruce up the park’s now 3,185-acre land base for the celebration.
Present park manager Pat Wells said about $400,000 has been spent on renovations, which include a new 30,000-gallon aquarium to replace the old leaking one, upgrades to the picnic pavilions to make them accessible to the disabled and improvements to the 47-site campground to accommodate the needs of RVs.
The main event is scheduled for Dec. 11 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the park. Dr. Sylvia Earle, oceanographer, explorer and Time Magazine’s first “Hero for the Planet,” will be the featured speaker. Admission to the park and the celebration will be free.
While the underwater world still faces massive challenges, Frink said there is a big difference in the marine life of managed waters.
‘’I wish everyone could travel as much as I have, particularly in the Caribbean, where now you only see tiny fish and ones that are so skittish you can’t get close enough to photograph,” Frink said.
‘’Here there are massive schools of fish. Big, bold angel fish will swim right up to your face. The sound of a regulator doesn’t mean somebody is going to spear them.”
Three weeks ago, John Pennekamp Jr. sat on a bench outside the visitor’s center and recalled that his father had no idea at the dedication that the park was to bear his name.
Pennekamp Jr. said his father once tried to use the honor to impress his grandkids when he pulled up to the park entrance.
Hardee said the exchange went something like this:
Pennekamp Sr.: “I’d like to go into the park. My name is John Pennekamp.”
Park ranger: “Yes, sir. And I’m George Washington. It will be 25 cents.”