Biscayne National Park in South Florida is unlike most national parks because the wilderness that it protects is mainly underwater. Looking out over Biscayne Bay, one may simply see a wide stretch of blue water coming to an end at another wide stretch of blue sky. But underneath the water is a swath of wilderness teeming with life.
Four distinct ecosystems
Biscayne National Park protects four distinct ecosystems which include mangrove forests, Biscayne Bay, the Florida Keys, and coral reefs. These ecosystems melt into each other giving the area a vibrant natural wonder.
The word mangrove describes several trees that not only have adapted to but flourish in salty environments. These forests are recognizable by their impenetrable root system. They have a sort of claw-like roots that grip the ground and not paying any attention to the water level.
Mangroves help protect the bay by slowing water flow from the mainland. This allows the sediment to settle in the mangrove forests and keep the park waters clean and clear. Mangroves also create habitats for countless wildlife.
The waters in the Biscayne Bay are exceptionally clear. The bay is a shallow estuary, where mainland freshwater mixes with saltwater. The bay has two primary ecosystems, hardbottom communities, and seagrass meadows. Yup, there are underwater meadows at Biscayne National Park.
Most people have heard of the Florida Keys. The park protects the easternmost keys. The keys are home to salt-tolerant plants and tropical plants not found in the continental United States outside Florida.
The Florida Keys shelter Biscayne Bay and the Florida mainland from the ocean.
When I think of coral reefs at Biscayne National Park, I think of a fish tank. The bright colors of fish and plants are illuminated even more by the clear and shallow waters. The park’s brochure describes this ecosystem as a “living kaleidoscope.” It also describes the reef as a bustling city – busy and active day and night. Biscayne National Park protects the north portion of the third-largest coral reef in the world.
Exploring Biscayne National Park
Because the park is mostly underwater or accessible only by boat, exploring it is a little harder. However, with the help of a guide or boat tour, exploring all four ecosystems is possible and affordable.
Biscayne National Park Institute
Biscayne National Park Institute is a partnership between the park and its nonprofit partner the Florida National Parks Association. Its mission is to connect people to Biscayne National Park through the educational and experiential program.
The Institute offers numerous ways to get out and explore the park. It’s also one of the best resources for getting off the mainland. Through the Institute, you can take a boat cruise out to Boca Chita Key, Elliott Key, and Adams Key. I had booked one of these cruises for my trip to Biscayne National Park, unfortunately, the weather was not on my side. Strong winds caused the Institute to cancel the trip.
Other adventures you can take through the Institute include snorkeling, kayak or canoe trips, sailing, and scuba diving.
When my trip was canceled, I was bummed for sure. But I was still able to explore some and take in the park. So if you don’t have the time or money for a guided trip, you can still walk around and enjoy the park from the mainland.
A paved walking path leaves from the north side of the visitor center and follows along the shoreline. It then goes onto a boardwalk and onto the jetty, a thin strip of land. As you walk the jetty, you can see the wonderful marine ecosystem. You can also see the skyline of Miami in the distance. At the end of the jetty, you have panoramic views of Biscayne Bay.
Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is unique in that it is one of a few national parks that preserve an underwater wilderness. It’s a beautiful place that showcases some of the most interesting and special natural parts of Florida. We tend to not think of the Florida Keys as a place to go for wilderness, but Biscayne shows us that there is great wilderness under the surface. It’s only about a 30-minute drive from Everglades National Park, making it a great addition to a trip to South Florida.