KEY LARGO, Florida -- The 50th anniversary of the creation of America's first underwater preserve, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is to be celebrated Dec. 1-11 in Key Largo. The island is humming with activity as it prepares for visitors marking the occasion with a trip to the park at the gateway to the Florida Keys.
World-renowned oceanographer and explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle, "Time" magazine's first Hero for the Planet, is to be keynote speaker at the celebration's signature event. Also scheduled to be in attendance are original park managers and staff as well as descendants of the late John Pennekamp, the "Miami Herald" editor who helped create this Florida Keys jewel that lies just a 90-minute drive from Miami.
The park named for Pennekamp was dedicated Dec. 10, 1960. Today it draws more than a million visitors annually to explore its nature trails and beaches and observe the abundant underwater wildlife that inhabits its 70 square nautical miles.
Numerous events held inside Pennekamp Park, on the water and throughout the Key Largo community are designed to appeal to divers, snorkelers and outdoor enthusiasts. Highlights of the 11-day celebration include:
Dec. 1: 50th Anniversary Photo Contest Begins. Participants can enter up to six images that portray Key Largo's natural beauty and tell its story through pictures in this juried competition that is open to all shutterbugs. Stephen Frink, one of the world's most published underwater photographers and a longtime Key Largo resident, is to be one of the judges.
Dec. 4: Snorkeling Record Attempt. Snorkelers are encouraged to participate and help set the bar for Pennekamp Park's record for the most snorkelers in the water at one time. Visit www.fla-keys.com/pennekamp50 and click Event Highlights for more details.
Dec. 6-9: Protect the Reef Days. In accordance with the park's mission to protect and preserve the surrounding natural resources, events over these three days are aimed at keeping coral reefs clean and healthy.
An environmental cleanup is planned for Dec. 6 at 10 a.m., both for the shoreline and by canoe or kayak. In addition, a morning educational coral restoration seminar, followed by two afternoon scuba dives to actual coral nurseries, are scheduled with the Coral Restoration Foundation and Amoray Dive Resort.
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation is sponsoring a free fish identification seminar, with an optional two-tank scuba dive, beginning at 10 a.m. Dec. 7. Open to recreational snorkelers and divers, the introductory "class" highlights the Florida Keys' 50 most-sighted reef fish. To join, visit www.reef.org/fishid/pennekamp.
A derby-style Lionfish Roundup is planned for Wednesday, Dec. 8. Two-person teams can sign up to help remove invasive lionfish from the reefs. Prizes are to be awarded to the teams capturing the biggest, most and smallest lionfish. For more information visit www.reef.org/lionfish/roundup/pennekamp.
Dec. 10: Underwater Rededication Ceremony. Marking the 50th anniversary of Pennekamp's original dedication, the rededication is planned at one of the park's most famous offshore sites, the 9-foot-tall bronze "Christ of the Deep." Resting in 20 feet of water, the iconic statue is a replica of the like-named statue in the Mediterranean Sea, donated to the Underwater Society of America in 1961 by industrialist Egidi Cressi.
Dec. 11: Educational Fair & Environmental Expo. Scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Pennekamp, this event underscores the island-wide celebration with conservation-minded educational vendor booths and exhibits as well as nationally renowned guest speakers including Dr. Earle. Visitors can enjoy the park's popular water activities during the event, such as viewing the reef on glass-bottom boat tours, canoeing, kayaking or fishing.
Several Key Largo area retail businesses, dive and snorkel operators, restaurants and lodging properties have special value-added offers and roll-back prices during the 50th anniversary celebration.
For more information and event highlights, visit www.fla-keys.com/pennekamp50.
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