National Park Number: 32 of 59
Biscayne is all about the water; the largest marine park in the national park system, it’s comprised entirely of mangrove shoreline, the northernmost of the Florida Keys, and lots and lots of agua.
So it’s not the easiest park to experience. You can drive right up to the visitor’s center and check out the exhibits there (which we did) and you can walk the adjacent Jetty Trail along the shore. But in order to really see what this park has to offer, you need a boat.
And luckily, we have one! And we used the heck out of it and had a blast. But being that we are 2 rowers and 2 rowdy kids in a fun-but-not-efficient inflatable kayak, we couldn’t use it to go very far. So on our first day, we signed ourselves up for a boat tour to Boca Chita Key, one of the northernmost Florida Keys and a gorgeous little place to birdwatch, check out the Miami skyline, and get down to the music being blasted by day-tripping, sun-tanning Miamians from their boats.
On the way out to Boca Chita, we got to learn all about the ecology of the park from one of its volunteer rangers, a fascinating guy who actually spent his whole career working for the nuclear power plant just south of Biscayne, which gave him a super interesting perspective on preserving the wildlife and wilderness of the area. He and the boat’s captain pointed out loads of herons, egrets, pelicans, and frigatebirds. We didn’t see any dolphins (apparently unusual for this tour), but did see sea turtles and stingrays swimming along in the shallow water and grazing in the turtle grass.
Biscayne Bay, which lies on the west side of the keys, doesn’t get very deep and its floor is covered in grass and vegetation, so it’s a perfect, peaceful home for tiny creatures and their offspring. The grasses keep the water super clear, and the mangroves that line the edges of the bay protect and provide for a huge variety of fish. Those mangroves also shore up the edges of the land, protecting people and the shoreline from hurricanes and other storms. Unfortunately, huge swaths of mangrove forest were cut down to make way for Miami and other development; in many places, the mangroves were replaced by artificial beaches that wash away whenever a major storm hits (we saw and heard evidence of this all up and down the Florida coast, as tons of beaches were closed and under construction.) Biscayne is now the longest mangrove forest on the east coast of Florida.
Once we arrived at Boca Chita, we climbed up the 65-foot lighthouse, built by former owner Mark Honeywell because he just liked lighthouses and thought it would be pretty. We and our fellow tour-goers weren’t the only visitors; Boca Chita is the most popular island in the park because it’s easily accessed from Miami and has a good little sand beach and facilities. We strolled around the island a bit, looking out across the Atlantic to the east and playing on the beach before loading back onto the boat and returning to the mainland.
Out past Boca Chita to the east (and where we’d like to visit if we can make it down here again) is the northern end of the third-largest coral reef in the world (we saw the southern end at Dry Tortugas). The reef is apparently epic for snorkeling and diving, plus the park maintains a Maritime Heritage Trail, an underwater archeological trail of the many shipwrecks that lie beneath here. Our idea is to get SCUBA certified and get a boat and get a Miami beach house, and then we’ll come down from New York on winter weekends and explore every one of those ships. Let us know if you’d like to be our benefactor.
One clutch bit of information we learned at Biscayne: islands and keys are different things. Islands are made by geologic processes (volcanoes, earthquakes, uplift, etc.), while keys are made biologically, by living things. All of the keys are made from coral reefs that became exposed, had sediment deposited on them by waves, fertilizer deposited on them by animals, and eventually came to sustain plant and animal life. Very cool knowing that when you’re standing on a key, you’re basically on the back of a giant (no longer alive, but still) animal.
After our afternoon at Boca Chita Key, we were excited to get back on the water the next day and explore the water at our own pace. But first, we couldn’t pass up a ranger program at the visitor center, during which we gathered a bunch of samples from the bay water and looked for plankton under microscopes. We ended up getting way more into this than expected, and Graham proved to be a real natural at scanning the slide for movement. We saw a bunch of creepy looking squirmers, and I was thereafter freaked out about the water getting on me.
But I had to get over that quickly, because our kayaking experience in inevitably a very wet one. We love the inflatable, but it’s more like a raft than anything and we get dripped on a whole lot any time we go for a paddle. For the first time in a while, this was actually really nice, because we were finally in a hot (super hot, super super hot hot) place. Our mission for this paddle was to see a manatee, which like hanging out in the bay, especially during the winter, to feed on the shoal and turtle grasses.
We paddled along the mangroves of the shoreline, then turned up toward Mowry Canal. We saw loads of gorgeous birds, but no manatees.
After we’d been paddling for a few hours, around some of the tiny islands of the bay and up several smaller creeks, we started back across the open water toward the visitors center. And that’s when we started seeing manatees: first one little nose poking above the water, then a few, then what seemed like a whole herd of manatees (or—I just Googled this—an aggregation, which is what one calls a group of manatees. When one has occasion to call a group of manatees anything). We sat quietly scanning the water, looking and listening for them to take a breath at the surface, then quickly paddling over so we could watch them swim around under the clear water, whipping up slurries of sludge as they grazed in the grass.
I’m not sure, in the end, how many manatees we were watching; it could have been a dozen or just a few covering a whole lot of ground (or bay, as it were). Our favorite ones were a mom and baby—the baby looked exactly like a baked potato. I wanted to take every one of them home with me.
We spent the entire afternoon that way, chasing manatees, watching them roll around in the water. They seemed unfazed by us, swimming right up to and under our boat. It was, hands down, one of the coolest experiences we’ve ever had—totally mesmerizing and utterly thrilling.