We wished to stay at John Pennekamp State Park ever since we started traveling to Florida. The problem was that it seemed almost impossible to get reservations. After calling the park, we discovered you can make a reservation online through www.reserveamerica.com eleven months prior to your desired date. The park staff told us that reservations are taken at 8:00 in the morning and were usually gone within seconds. We researched the campsites that were available during the timeframe we wanted and were successful in getting a reservation on our second attempt, literally seconds after 8:00.
As we did our research we became concerned about our ability to fit into the campsites at the park. However, when we arrived at the park, we were pleased to discover the sites looked a lot larger on the ground than they did on the computer. We had no problems backing into our site. I think you can list John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park as “big rig friendly.”
John Pennekamp State Park is officially the “John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park” as most of the park is in the waters and reef that extend 12 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. The land portion is actually quite small. However, there is a lot to do packed into this small space. They have a marina, an on-site SCUBA diving operation that runs daily dive charters, snorkel tours go out daily in the morning and afternoon, there are kayak rentals with maps of local kayak trails, beaches, picnic areas, of course the campground, an aquarium and visitor center.
Pat and I both signed up for the 4 1/2 hour Deluxe Snorkeling Tour offered by the state park on Monday. The primary purpose for camping at Pennekamp was so I could SCUBA dive on the USS Spiegel Grove. This is a WW II Landing Ship – Dock (LSD) that was sunk as an artificial reef and is reported to be the third largest artificial reef in the world. I was able to make a reservation to dive on the Spiegel Grove on Tuesday. We were now ready for a great week!
The “Deluxe Snorkel Tour” was wonderful. The staff onboard made sure everyone was squared away, well briefed on each of the three sites, and provided instruction and coaching when needed. The water was clear and the aquatic life plentiful. We saw barracuda, turtles, grunts, jacks, and angelfish to name a few. For me, the highlight of the trip was the second site where we visited the “Christ of the Abyss” statue. This is the third bronze statue from the original mold and was presented to the Underwater Society of America in New York in 1962. On August 25, 1965 it was placed in approximately 25 feet of water off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. It is located around Dry Rocks reef, about six miles east of Key Largo near the boundary of Pennekamp State Park. The statue is 8 1/2 feet tall (making the tip of it only 7 to 10 feet underwater, depending on high or low tide), it weighs around 4,000 pounds and the concrete base to which it is attached weighs about 9 tons.
The next day I had the opportunity to SCUBA dive on the USS Spiegel Grove and another wreck, the Benwood. The dive charter was run through Ocean Divers of Key Largo and I heartily recommend this dive shop to anyone wanting to dive in Key Largo. From the standpoint of efficiency and safety, I was very impressed with their operation.
As a solo diver I need to buddy with whomever is on the boat. This time I had great luck teaming up with two other divers, Jim and Petra, who had their act together. We bonded quickly, made a plan and actually followed it as a team! This may sound like it should always be this way, but my experience has often been otherwise. My dive buddies helped make this a wonderful morning.
The Spiegel Grove is in great shape and is set up for a wonderful diving experience. We descended down the port side to the “well deck” and bottomed out at 117 feet, swam to the starboard side to explore the forward deck and superstructure. The hatchways have been opened and it is possible to safely swim through portions of the interior of the ship – what a rush that is! Our 32 minutes underwater went by way too fast and we had to ascend back to the dive boat.
After accounting for all divers, we headed to the Benwood. Unlike the Spiegel Grove, which was sunk on purpose, the Benwood was damaged in a storm and run aground to prevent her from sinking in deep water so her cargo could be salvaged. She sits in about 30 feet of water, making it a much easier dive than the Spiegel Grove. Jim had brought along a device that looked like a small window fan to propel a diver through the water and he let us give it a try – lots of fun! As we swam around the wreck we saw schools of barracuda, angelfish, grunts, squirrel fish, filefish, and a family of spotted horn fish living under the bow of the ship. There was a green moray eel hiding on the starboard side that looked like something had taken a bite out of his back. We spent just over an hour underwater circling the ship several times. The visibility was unlimited and the sea was a calm as a bathtub. You just couldn’t ask for better weather! If I get a chance to dive these wrecks again, I’m sure I will be disappointed, after the ideal conditions on this trip.
We spent the rest of the week kayaking, biking in the area, and browsing in local dive shops. The Visitor Center had a program on clouds that was very educational, and the aquarium, while small, is one of the best laid out exhibits I have seen.
We really enjoyed John Pennekamp State Park, I recommend it to anyone who loves the water. However, all good things must come to an end and we departed on Saturday, February 1st for Key West and the RV park on Sigsbee Island.