Soon I came upon some cannons that had been put there from a shipwreck for people to explore. There were some fish swimming in and out of these objects. I was following one fish trying to get a nice photo of it when all of a sudden it took off. I didn’t move enough to cause it to disappear so what scared it. Immediately I looked behind me and saw what it was. A larger school of fish coming right at me. These fish were about 18 inches long or so and there were hundreds of them. At first I wasn’t sure if I should try and swim away quickly or if it was to late and they were going to hit me. After considering the situation for a few seconds I calmed down and just watched as I became a part of their school and they swam all around me. Above me, below, and on both sides. What an amazing experience something of which I have never been a part of before.
Once the school had vanished out of sight I quickly looked around for Karen who was snorkeling with me and could not find her. Popping my head above the surface I saw she was closer to shore and swam to talk to her. Excitedly I asked if she had seen the school of fish which see hadn’t however she did see one or two of them and wasn’t overly thrilled by it. She continued to explain that while she was watching a fish swim around a larger one came from behind and ate it. I realized at that point those fish had seeked us out because we were disturbing fish as we swam making them easier prey. I began to laugh at the circle of life and shared the experience of being engulfed in hundreds of fish. After a few minutes we continued swimming to see what else there may be to find and also search for a stingray if it was near.
There were some really interesting looking fish hiding out around the shipwreck pieces and around the ledge of the drop-off. I did build up the courage to go a little distance beyond this wall into the unknown but wasn’t really able to see much so returned to exploring shallower areas. After continuing on this little underwater adventure for awhile the school of fish returned and this time Karen also became part of the school. At first she was startled but then took it all in like I had the first time around. This time I was able to just enjoy the experience and take a few photographs. Once they had left Karen and I shared our experiences with each other for a few minutes and decided we have been shivering long enough that it was time to get out of the water and warm up.
While swimming back towards shore I was feeling extremely satisfied with the decision to enter the water in spite of the cold and potential disappointment of the area reserved for this. I also felt a little disappointed for those who were in the water before us and did not get to see the giant school of fish. We did mention it to another couple that had just entered the water in hopes they would get to experience becoming a part of a school if only for a few brief moments. We washed off and cleaned our gear allowing it to dry for a few minutes before walking saying good bye to the Florida Keys. In the end our decision to take to the water came down to one thing – would we regret it if we never tried to snorkel in this beautiful place? Without a doubt the answer would have been YES! Who knows if we will ever make it back to do it again and look at all the things we would have missed out on.
Out in the middle of this designated swimming/snorkeling area a stingray came flying above the surface and splashed down back into the water. I’ve read about this and heard about it but never actually saw it myself. Now the decision to stay dry didn’t seem as important. There was the possibility of swimming with stingrays again. After a few minutes of conversation and thought it was decided that we came all this way, we have the gear with us, let’s use it and warm up later. It’s not like the water was cold enough to produce hyperthermia … was it? So off to the car to fetch our equipment and change into swimming attire.
After getting set up to go into the water we got to the waters edge and then the cold hit. Motivation was waning. Another step in and stop to acclimate. Another step. And then another. Now I was in water almost to my waist and I wasn’t sure I could go any further. It had taken about 10 minutes just to get this far into the water. Knowing the afternoon was speeding by and time to leave would come faster than we wanted I was trying to push on and acclimate a little faster but my shivering was increasing in intensity pushing me to get out of the water. Finally I took another step into deeper water and stood there for a a minute or two more. The water kept moving higher on me taking my breath away with each wave. After deciding enough time had been wasted by slowly moving into the water along knowing there were sights under water that I was missing I took the plunge and dived in. It was painful and I couldn’t get above the surface fast enough to take in the warmth of the sun. Standing again for a minute or two I dove in again and this time took off swimming while looking for creatures of the deep (or at least underwater).
At first there were several small fish without much color but not a lot to view as had been mentioned other snorkelers. Swimming further out from shore I came upon a huge drop-off where the ground gave away and I could barely see a bottom. This caught me by surprise as a drop-off of this magnitude was not expected this close to shore. I couldn’t bring myself to go over the edge of this underwater wall because I couldn’t see the bottom. What if another stingray made its’ way to the surface and smacked into me? Or worse, what if something scared the stingray to the surface and that was still down there? No, I’m definitely staying where I can see what’s going on.
Continue on to the next post to read about the most spectacular experience of this afternoon….
This park first came up while researching things to do in the Florida Keys a couple of years ago but we ran out of time so were never able to visit. There is a trail or two to hike and a visitors center to explore but John Pennekamp State Park is all about the water. One trail meandering through the mangroves needs some maintenance with broken and rotting boards and an entire section of the trail closed. Unfortunately the section that is closed includes an observation tower where you could look over the mangroves out towards the ocean reefs. Once your focus turns to the water though this park shines.
While exploring Pennekamp we kept trying to decide if we wanted to go snorkeling and if so where. The water in Dry Tortugas National Park was cold and that was further south indicating that the water in Key Largo must be even colder. Enjoying the reefs is something we rarely get to do so when the opportunity arrives we try to take advantage. There was still plenty of hesitation do to a couple of factors. First, the water was cold as people continued to remind us as they were coming out of it. Secondly, in order to snorkel the reefs you need to purchase a snorkeling or scuba tour and we had already spent what is a lot of money to do this already on this trip. So if we weren’t going to snorkel why did we go to Pennekamp State Park?
There was never really the intention to go snorkeling with a paid tour however through researching this place there were reports of designated snorkeling areas right from the shore. Our hope was find some of the colorful reefs near shore however after arriving we found that the designated swimming/snorkeling areas where sea grass beds which tend not to be as colorful thus reducing the motivation even further to enter the water. Back to trying to justify spending more money on a snorkeling tour. While exploring the park and discussing our options to spend our last afternoon in the keys we went into the visitor center. This is a nice building with several aquariums to display the ocean habitats around this part of Florida. Yes, the motivation to go snorkeling increased while looking at these reef aquariums but not yet enough to get our gear.
Walking around the visitor center and exploring the park on foot seeing the swimming areas and mangrove trail was a nice way to spend the day. Fortunately it was sunny and warm and we were content just enjoying the scenery and weather without getting our gear wet which would require us to wash and dry it so it could be packed for our flight home the next morning. After strolling around John Pennekamp for an hour or two we sat down on one of the beaches taking in the views and talking with a few people who had braved the cold water to snorkel. They mentioned seeing some fish but nothing really extraordinary and getting use to the water took some time. That about seals it, we’ll enjoy this place from the land for today.
And then we witnessed something I have never seen before…. Check out the next post for more on this story.