Note: The company that provides boat tours and rentals at this park has closed and this program is not available at this time. Check the status of concessions at the park at its website.
There’s a national park 90 minutes away and, after living here 33 years, I finally visited it.
Biscayne National Park, you see, is 95 percent underwater and accessible only by boat, so it’s not an easy park to drop in on.
I found the best way to experience it, though, and it’s going to be available every other Saturday during summer 2013 — snorkel a shipwreck with a park ranger.
I joined the first-ever Ranger Guided Maritime Heritage Snorkel Adventure in 2011, and Ranger Astrid Rybeck was bubbling with enthusiasm for her park and the new tour program.
Now Biscayne National Park is offering the program again for summer 2013.
On the inaugural shipwreck snorkel trip, our group of about 40 headed out on a dive boat for the Mandalay shipwreck, a 1928 schooner that sank Jan. 1, 1966 on Long Reef. What’s left of the Mandalay is spread out in about 12 feet of aquarium-clear water, home to schools of colorful fish, gaudy purple sea fans and all sorts of reef flora and fauna.
It takes about an hour for the boat to reach the dive site. As you leave Biscayne National Park headquarters at Convoy Point, you see Turkey Point nuclear plant looming nearby to the south and Mount Trashmore towering to the north. (This dump holds what were once big parts of Homestead and Florida City, whacked by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.) In the distance you see the skyline of Miami.
The shoreline is all mangroves — part of the longest uninterrupted mangrove shoreline on the east coast of the U.S., according to Biscayne National Park Ranger Rybeck.
The trip to the reef takes you across “the park” — Biscayne Bay. You can look into the clear shallow water to see waving sea grasses and sponges and perhaps spot the occasional dolphin or ray. The boat passes the uninhabited islands of Biscayne National Park — Boca Chita, Elliot and Adams keys. These are the northern-most keys in the Florida Keys chain of islands, saved from development in the 1970s. (On maps, it still shows as Islandia, which was incorporated.)
Beyond the keys is the Atlantic Ocean and the line of reefs that has been wrecking ships for centuries. The Mandalay is one of 44 identified wrecks in Biscayne National Park, and one of six being designated as part of a Maritime Heritage Trail, which will offer mooring posts and laminated maps of each wreck. The dive-a-wreck outings will visit others, some of which are in 25 and 30 feet of water. There will be more shipwreck to admire, Rybeck says, but snorkelers won’t get as close to the fish and coral. When reserving a trip. Rybeck says visitors won’t know which ship they’ll dive because it depends on conditions.
The Mandalay is an easy shipwreck for even beginners to snorkel. Rybeck hands out stretchy bracelets with a laminated map of the wreck to help us discern one part from another. While snorkeling around the reef, we saw a variety of common reef fish — trumpetfish, blue tangs, surgeon fish, four types of parrot fish, smooth trunkfish, schools of sergeant majors.
The tale of the Mandalay is one of those sad and colorful stories of the sea. The 110-foot long, steel hulled schooner was built in 1928 for $177,000. It went through various owners until Windjammer Cruises, Inc., purchased, refitted, and renamed the vessel Mandalay in 1965, for use as a luxury “barefoot” cruise ship. The Mandalay was tricked out with only the best — mahogany, brass, and ivory fittings and a teak deck.
It was New Year’s Eve 1965 when the Mandalay was headed toward Miami with 23 vacationers and 12 crew, returning from a 10 day Bahaman cruise. The captain, a 26-year-old Norwegian, went to sleep about 1 a.m., leaving a novice seaman at the helm. In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1966, the Mandalay was driven hard aground on Long Reef. Later, the captain admitted he had miscalculated — the Mandalay was 20 miles off course.
Passengers were safely rescued by helicopter but the ship’s fate was far worse. With the Mandalay unprotected, scavengers stripped it, taking everything of value — including the passenger cameras, watches, and purses. Even the lead ballast blocks — tons of it — were taken by small outboard motorboats and melted into lead diving weights and resold at $1 per pound.
Later, tugboats failed to pull the Mandalay off Long Reef, and 50 years late, fish are picnicking on her while snorkelers enjoy the view.
Visiting Biscayne National Park
There’s no question: The best way to visit Biscayne National Park is by boat.
A kayak and canoe launch area and rental operation gives visitors a chance to explore the mangrove coastline. But, except for the most advanced and adventurous kayakers, the islands are too far to reach by paddle. (A ranger estimated six hours of paddling over open water.)
The concessionaire at the park offers a variety of trips by boat: Glass-bottom-boat tours over the reef ($45), snorkeling trips to the reef ($45) and island tours to Boca Chita ($35.) In 2013, the trip to the Mandalay is priced at $55 per person.
Both Boca Chita and Elliot Keys have campgrounds, but if you don’t have a boat, you have to arrange with the concessionaire to get you there and back. Tent camping is $15 a night; boat camping is $20 a night, which includes dock space and use of a camp site.
In the winter, the rangers lead some intriguing trips. I tried to reserve a spot on one, but it was full, so next year my goal is to join an all-day ranger-guided canoe trip to some of the park’s most pristine locations around its southern keys. These trips, which include boat transportation to Adams Key, are only offered in winter and spring because the mosquitos in the summer are “oppressive,” according to Rybeck.
Convoy Point, Biscayne National Park headquarters, offers beautifully situated picnic tables — with shade and overlooking Biscayne Bay — and a scenic quarter-mile boardwalk. The visitor center offers exhibits and a movie. Except as a picnic stop during a road trip to the Florida Keys, however, Biscayne National park isn’t a worthwhile destination without a way to go out on the water.
Planning your visit to Biscayne National Park
- To inquire about the schedule for shipwreck snorkeling trips, call the concessionaire at 305-230-1100. Shipwreck tours start June 1, 2013, with trips scheduled for 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. With an every-other-week schedule, there would be trips June 15, June 29, July 13, etc. But call the concessionaire to confirm and get details.
- Admission to the park is free. It’s easy to find, due east of the huge Homestead-Miami speedway.
- Reserve a snorkeling or boat trip
- Biscayne National Park official website
- Maritime Heritage Trail
Things to do near Biscayne National Park
- If you’re driving to Biscayne National Park, you may want to keep going to explore the Florida Keys. Our Florida Keys mile-marker guide is an ideal companion to a roadtrip.
- Everglades National Park is minutes away. Here are our tips for visiting Everglades National Park.
- Robert is Here is a great stop in Homestead for milkshakes (key lime!) plus exotic fruit and variety of farm animals.
- Drive down scenic Card Sound Road and discover Alabama Jack’s, a classic Keys tiki bar known for its conch fritters.
- An attraction that belongs on the Florida funky hall of fame: Coral Castle Museum, is minutes away.