SNORKELING – FLORIDA vs AUSTRALIA

Jul 03, 17 SNORKELING – FLORIDA vs AUSTRALIA

Warren Resen – North American Travel Journalists Association

Photos – Jeanne  O’Connor

During her last moments in OZ, Dorothy clicked the heels of her ruby red slippers together as she repeated the words, “There’s no place like home.” I had the same thought while anchored over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

It had been an hour and one-half boat ride on a speeding catamaran from Caines in the northeast part of the country to reach the closest part of the reef. The weather report had been for moderate seas, a thought I kept in mind on the trip out as the spray from the waves reached the third deck of our catamaran. Many passengers were making good use of those little white utilitarian bags.

Once inside the reef we moored to a large dive platform. The reef offered some protection from the waves, but the water was gray and choppy. Hoping visibility was better beneath the turbid surface I changed clothes, put on my mask, snorkel and flippers. We were warned to stay close to floats anchored throughout the roped in diving area because of the wind and strong currents.

Are you aware that the waters of Australia are home to two of the world’s most poisonous creatures and both are jellyfish?

Just to arrive at this moment meant a day’s flight from our Florida home to Los Angeles. Then it was more than fourteen hours in the sardine section of a Qantas plane to Sydney, Australia. After clearing customs, another flight of three hours took us to Caines in northeast Australia, the tropical part of the Down Under continent. We were in the State of Queensland whose motto   is the same as Florida’s, “The Sunshine State.”

Caines, Australia - waiting to leave for Great Barrier Reef

Caines, Australia – waiting to leave for Great Barrier Reef

Over the years I had seen videos of Florida’s and Australia’s coral reefs. Australia’s reef is of course huge in comparison to Florida’s but then again you will most likely be snorkeling in a confined area seeing only a miniscule part of the reef.

The coral and sea fans of Australia’s reef over which I was hovering looked to my untrained eye just like the ones I had seen in videos of Florida’s reefs. There were just more of them. Several of species of fish, unfamiliar to me and therefore exotic, were in the area. Just being in Australia was exotic.

Leaving Australia a few days later and arriving at my hotel room in Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand   I set about immediately to satisfy a long time question I’ve had about which direction the water drains south of the Equator.

Filling my bathtub, several times, I pulled out the stopper and watched as the water swirled down the drain. Finally, I saw with my own eyes what I had heard about from others.

Water does drain counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere! A very expensive laboratory experiment for when I could have pulled up the answer on Google.  But this was more fun.

I decided that on my return to Florida, I would schedule a snorkeling trip to this country’s premiere underwater coral reef park in the Florida Keys.

John Pennekamp State Park, located in Key Largo the northernmost of Florida’s Keys, is a place I had not visited in many years.  Because it was a short a 2 hour trip from my house, it was not some faraway place I would normally consider exotic.

When you reach Key Largo, you have entered the beginning of the so called “Conch Republic.”  Key Largo has everything for which the Keys are famous except perhaps the mystique of Key West, despite the 1948 movie KEY LARGO with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. But then Key West was another 100 miles and two hours and to the southwest. What I also discovered during my visit to Key Largo were all the amenities not available to me when visiting the Australian reef.

In Australia the object is just to get out to “the reef.” There were few on-shore amenities to enjoy. Once moored over the Great Barrier Reef, visitor’s activities consisted of snorkeling, scuba diving, viewing the reef in a small glass bottom boat, or just sitting on the platform watching everyone else do their thing.

Moored to Snorkeling platform.

Moored to Snorkeling platform.

Florida’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is another story. It is more than just a reef. It is a destination. After paying a small entrance fee, the park offers something for every one of all ages and abilities.

From Key Largo down to Key West, snorkeling/dive shops abound. Without a recommendation or score card, it’s pretty much of a toss-up as to where to stop. What it comes down to is a choice of convenience and price. And remember, in any given area the boats generally go to the same spots. The reefs do vary though in distance from shore and depth. The shallower the reef, the easier the viewing when snorkeling.

Prior snorkeling experience for passengers is not necessary. All boats give instructions to their passengers before they enter the water and provide all necessary equipment. Trips vary by season, time of day and operator.

Arriving in Key Largo in mid afternoon, I booked a 5:30 PM “sunset” trip with a snorkeling boat convenient to my motel.  After a 45 minute ride we were over a section of the protected Pennekamp reef.

It was one hour of snorkeling, looking at corals and fish, and then back to port with the added benefit of watching the setting sun from the forward deck. So far it was like my trip to the Great Barrier Reef; take a boat ride, snorkel, return to port. The next day’s morning trip to Pennekamp would change my prospective.

The park has everything: snorkeling, diving, a large glass bottom boat, rental water craft of all kinds, a sandy beach, fishing, picnic areas, hiking, camping, inside showers, changing stations and more. You can bring your own gear or rent or buy just about anything needed for the day or a couple of days. The visitor’s center features a 30,000 gallon salt water tank with smaller fish tanks and exhibits throughout.

The manager at Pennekamp told me that this was Florida’s third busiest state park with over 800,000 visitors per year. Unfortunately I forgot to ask for the names of the other two.

The next morning’s trip out to the reef was a fast half-hour ride to a point five miles off-shore. We were on the Key Largo Dry Rocks Reef, so named because at low tide some of the coral is visible above water. This part of the reef was very shallow and water clarity was excellent.

Snorkelers easily see coral, sea grasses, lobsters, and numerous reef fish, all within arms reach. Because of the gentle current it was easy to stop swimming and hover over something of interest.  When you stop moving and just float, schools of colorful reef fish quickly surround you.

For the trip take only the bare necessities on board with you. Judging by the amount of equipment some passengers bring for what is essentially a one hour snorkel trip, you would think they were going camping for the weekend.

Testing the water.

Testing the water.

The reef system in southeast Florida covers approximately 178 nautical square miles. The Pennekamp Reef extends 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean and is approximately 25 miles in length.

What I learned from these two experiences is that whether a reef is 1,200 miles or a hundred miles long shouldn’t matter to the occasional snorkeler who is floating over a tiny portion of it. However, not all reefs are the same, not even all parts of the same reef are the same.

The trip to Australia was exciting, long, and very expensive. Talking to friends when I returned to Florida I discovered that many Floridians, especially those in the northern part of the state, have never been to the Keys. It’s a long road trip for them. They mostly head to the nearby white sand beaches of the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic ocean beaches. I might suggest they rethink this at least for one trip.

World-wide, reefs are dying from the impact of civilization and warming ocean temperatures. I would recommend that people make plans to visit these wonderful places now before they, like many mountain glaciers, are gone.

For a family fun trip to an “almost” foreign place and an exotic location while staying in the USA, I would suggest visiting the Florida Keys.  You can go all the way to Key West or stop at Key largo, Florida’s first Key on the way south or any of a multitude of Keys in between.

Driving over the Seven-Mile Bridge south of Marathon will feel a bit like being on an ocean cruise while still in your own car with the Atlantic Ocean on your left and   Florida Bay on your right. And yes, the bridge is exactly seven miles long.

School of snorkelers in choppy water.

School of snorkelers in choppy water.

Now for some tips: #1 – If you are an early riser, opt for the morning snorkel trip. The seas are generally calmer then.  Seas can pick up by afternoon if the wind has been blowing all day. And if you take a late afternoon snorkeling trip after a full day’s outdoor activity, by the time you get back to land you might be too wiped  to enjoy an evening outing in the Keys.

#2 – If you have dentures, partials, or whatever, be sure they are well secured or left on board with your belongings. Most first timers keep a death grip on the snorkel mouthpiece with their teeth. It’s possible to have an accident and experience a very expensive loss.

The Internet will supply you with all of the information you ever wanted to know about the Florida Keys. Geographically, and for marketing purposes, they are divided into the Upper Keys, Middle Keys and Lower Keys.

Have a great trip to the Conch Republic. It’s another world.

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