<p>Photo: Two coconut palm trees in front of Atlantic Ocean</p>

The Atlantic forms a backdrop for twin palms and waves of sea oats on Florida's Sombrero Beach, part of Biscayne National Park.

Photograph by Raul Touzon

Location: Florida

Established: June 28, 1980

Size: 172,924 acres

Biscayne, a seascape in watercolor, offers vistas ashore and beneath the sea. Standing on the park's narrow shore, you look out upon a bay that is tranquil on the surface and teeming with life below. Aboard a glass-bottom boat or, better yet, on a snorkeling tour, you look down and see some of that life—dazzlingly colored fish, fantastically shaped corals, gently waving fronds of sea grass.

Biscayne is an underwater wilderness. Only five percent of the park is land—about 40 small barrier coral reef islands and a mangrove shoreline, the longest such undeveloped shore on Florida's east coast. Park wildlife musters under water in the form of minuscule, unusual, or rarely seen animals. The most extensive life-form is a community known as the coral reef—colonies of tiny polyps that secrete limestone and live within ever growing rocky crannies. The coral reefs at Biscayne are part of the only living ones in the continental United States.

The park reprieved a living system condemned to die under the pressure of progress. The threat came in the 1960s, when developers were making plans to build resorts and subdivisions on Florida's northern keys, from Key Biscayne to Key Largo. Conservationists campaigned to preserve Biscayne Bay; it became a national monument in 1968. When Biscayne National Park was established, boundaries were expanded to encompass several more of the bay's keys and reefs.

Biscayne embraces a complex ecosystem that extends from the mangrove shoreline to the Gulf Stream. Besides the mangrove coast and living reef, the ecosystem includes two other biological realms found on the small islands and the shallow bay's marine nursery. The realms are interwoven, and each sustains still other webs of life.

Guarding all this are the northernmost Florida Keys, ancient exposed coral reefs that keep ocean waves from battering the bay. Thus shielded, the bay offers sanctuary to the life within it and beauty to those who come to look beneath the surface.

How to Get There

From Miami, take Florida's Turnpike (Fla. 821) south to Speedway Boulevard, and turn left (south). Continue 4 miles on Speedway Boulevard to North Canal Drive and turn left (east). Follow Canal Drive another 4 miles to the park entrance. From Homestead (about 9 miles), take S.W. 328th Street (N. Canal Dr.) to the park entrance at Convoy Point. Airport: Miami.

When to Go

Year-round. The best time to visit the park's islands is from mid-December to mid-April, subtropical Florida's dry season. In summer, you face the perils of mosquitoes and fast-moving thunderstorms, but seas are generally the calmest—making it ideal for snorkeling and diving. Hurricanes are occasional.

How to Visit

Unless you have your own boat, plan to see Biscayne on a concessioner-run cruise. You can look underwater on a reef cruise aboard a glass-bottom boat or swim the shallow waters on a snorkeling cruise. There are also scuba cruises to the outer reef for qualified divers. You should make reservations in advance. Cruises may be canceled if there are too few passengers or the weather is inclement. Although this is a water park, a walk around the mangrove shore will give you a chance to examine the coastal edges of the bay's ecosystem. The Dante Fascell Visitor Center offers a museum, audiovisual programs, and ranger talks.

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