American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Keeping Coral Reefs Alive in Florida and Elsewhere
Recently, Jamie Williams, one of the winners of my last Moon Michigan giveaway, informed me that it was difficult to find my Moon Florida Keys guide in the bookstores of central Florida. Though dismayed, I wasn't terribly surprised. After all, while researching the southern region of the Sunshine State, I discovered that few residents and business owners had heard of Moon travel guides – a fact that I've been striving hard to change.
During our subsequent discussion about the guide, Jamie asked me about my favorite aspects of the Florida Keys. While listing such places as Mrs. Mac's Kitchen and Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, the History of Diving Museum and Pierre's Restaurant in Islamorada, Conch Key Cottages and Sparky's Landing in the Middle Keys, and Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys – all of which I've discussed on this blog before – I couldn't help but reflect on my favorite outdoor diversion: snorkeling in the offshore coral reefs of the Florida Keys, an ideal activity during the customarily hot, humid summer months.
Naturally, snorkeling in the Florida Keys – or elsewhere – requires a careful consideration of the marine environment and a profound respect for the creatures that call coral reefs home. While, for instance, visiting John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (102601 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo, 305/451-1202 or 305/451-6300, 8 a.m.-sunset daily, fees apply) – a popular place for first-time snorkelers and experienced scuba divers alike – you should take a moment to stop by the on-site visitor center. Here, you'll learn a lot about the organisms that you might see while on a scuba-diving or snorkeling excursion amid the remarkable offshore coral reefs within and beyond the park. Besides featuring aquariums filled with eels, tropical fish, and spotted spiny lobster, the center tries to educate people about proper coral reef etiquette – in an effort to protect the fragile coral reef system that extends for 220 miles along the eastern side of the Florida Keys, constituting the 2,900-square-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In fact, some of the following boating and diving regulations are strictly enforced by state park officials, so remember them the next time you venture into the offshore waters of the Florida Keys:
ᴥ Whether or not you choose to operate your own boat, you should always consult weather conditions ahead of time, as it's best not to go out in rough seas; poor visibility, strong winds, and increased waves can hinder safe interaction with coral reefs.
ᴥ If you do use your own boat, be sure to maintain all equipment so as to avoid inadvertent discharges of oil and other toxic substances.
ᴥ Do not discharge any raw sewage into offshore waters; instead, use official pump-out facilities available throughout the Keys.
ᴥ Do not litter in the ocean or abandon structures on the seabed, especially near the reefs; if you see such debris, please retrieve it and properly dispose of it on land.
ᴥ Use nautical and tidal charts to practice safe navigation, know your boat's draft, and be aware of the variations in surface water color; deep-water areas, for instance, are typically blue, shallower areas are often green, brown usually indicates shallow coral reefs and seagrass beds, and white signifies sand bars and rubble areas.
ᴥ Try to stay in marked channels, and do not approach lighthouses, reef light towers, shoal markers, and yellow buoys, which usually indicate shallow reef and seagrass areas.
ᴥ Slow down to an idle speed in dive areas, and stay at least 100 feet from a red-and-white, diver-down flag.
ᴥ Be careful while navigating a boat around coral reefs and seagrass beds, and do not drop anchors on, or near, living coral; instead, use the white-and-blue mooring buoys or anchor in the sandy patches adjacent to the reef.
ᴥ Do not damage or remove markers and mooring buoys.
ᴥ If you run aground, immediately turn the engine off and tilt the motor upward if possible; wait until high tide to remove the vessel by walking or poling, and if necessary, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (888/404-3922) for assistance. Be prepared to incur towing fees as well as fines for damaging the seagrass habitat.
ᴥ To avoid standing on the coral, use inflatable vests (if snorkeling) and practice proper buoyancy control (if diving).
ᴥ Avoid touching, kicking, defacing, or sitting on living coral formations.
ᴥ Do not collect historic resources (such as parts of shipwrecks), plantlife, living coral, seashells, tropical fish, Queen conch, sea stars, or other marine creatures near the reef.
ᴥ Do not engage in spearfishing or release exotic species near the reef.
ᴥ Resist the temptation to feed fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, and avoid any wildlife disturbance.
To put it more succinctly, “Look but don't touch.” Additionally, you can assist in the welfare of such coral reefs even when you're not in the water. For instance, try to choose seafood from fisheries that have the least negative impact on the ocean, and minimize your use of chemically enhanced pesticides and fertilizers, which may end up in offshore waters. Also, try to avoid purchasing coral jewelry and souvenirs, unless you know for certain that such decorative objects were not illegally harvested. Be sure, too, to report all damage of coral reefs to dive operators or conservation groups that monitor coral reef health.
For more information about area coral reefs, consult the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (305/852-7717 or 305/292-0311). To learn how to protect these beautiful, complex, and surprisingly fragile formations – whether you're exploring southern Florida, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, or somewhere else altogether – contact the Project AWARE Foundation (949/858-7657 or 866/802-9273) or the Reef Relief Headquarters & Environmental Center (631 Greene St., Key West, 305/294-3100), two nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving the living coral reef ecosystems around the world.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo / Text © 2011 Laura Martone