Exploring the First Underwater Park - Key Largo, FL

Honeymoon Spotlight -Key Largo, FL (August 2016)  

While growing up as a Florida native (and part mermaid) I found myself often gliding across the silky bay waters at full speed. Those who know me well know that being on a boat my happy place. My mom likes to tell the story of “throwing me up under the bow” at just a couple of weeks old – and apparently I liked it! That love for the water has always stuck with me and is something I have been getting my husband hooked on as well.

When we were planning our honeymoon, we decided the Florida Keys – Key Largo in particular – were a must-see. He had never been to the keys, and I was eager to share their crystal-clear waters that were so close to home. There was also a particular place in Key Largo that I had never been to, and which I had always fanaticized about visiting, and this is where I found fervor. But let’s start with that pesky fear part.

I introduced Michael (that’s my husband) to snorkeling a few years back while on a cruise to the Bahamas. We visited Freeport, where there is literally nothing else to do but snorkel! The weather almost prevented us from adventuring out, but just in time our guide gave us the go-ahead. The seas were rough and therefore the visibility was low, and this particular reef did not have a lot to offer. I was nervous Michael was going to regret going on the excursion, but to my surprise he loved it!

First snorkel-full of water swallowed and all – he was ‘down’ with snorkeling. I was ecstatic! "Wait until he sees crystal-clear waters below calm seas on an amazing reef," I thought. Since then, we have snorkeled often (mostly in the Caribbean and Mexico), but still had never made it to the Florida Keys together. As part of our honeymoon, we booked a snorkel trip in Key Largo that would explore two reefs within the only underwater park - John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. (If you haven’t been – Go!).

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Now while I love a good snorkel, there are a few things I really hope I don’t encounter while under the sea. You’re thinking shark right? That would make sense, but for me, it’s the BARRACUDA! I mean, come on. They look gnarly and move like lightning! I remember snorkeling along in Cozumel once and as if from nowhere a barracuda, as long as me (yes I am short, but that’s still a dang big barracuda) was suddenly swimming along next to me. Needless to say I ‘beelined’ it back to shore, and I am pretty sure my eyes were shut.

So we booked a trip out to the John Pennekamp reef and four days after our "I Do’s" it was time to dive in. We arrived at our first reef stop, mandatory neon life vests and all, and we plunged into the deep blue. Well, more like pretty shallow green, but it was beautiful none-the-less. It was actually so shallow that we had to be very careful not to graze the fire coral. After a few minutes of exploring I encountered my first barracuda "friend". Fortunately, he was just a baby, which definitely eased my nerves. He was almost cute… almost.

Instead of swimming away, I stood my ground and took the opportunity to study him and thought, "He's not so bad." I continued on exploring while also dodging the jellyfish that were currently migrating back into the area. This drew my focus on away from the increased number of slightly larger "friends" that began swimming about. Noticing them, I began swimming much closer to Michael, pointing out the several barracuda that had joined us. Each time I caught a glimpse I swam further away, trying to find a barracuda-free sanctuary.

Finally, it was time for us to head back to the boat, and on my way backI found myself swimming straight towards two larger barracuda. I managed to get myself to stop and watch one as he drifted through the water. After a few deep breaths to calm my nerves, I took the opportunity to study him. Without really realizing it, I began to swim towards him. (Yes, TOWARDS him!) I even turned on the GoPro for a close-up. Now, it wasn’t long before I changed direction, once again heading for the boat, but I felt a great sense of accomplishment.

Nature had been nice to me, introducing me to barracuda slowly increasing in size, which eased me into my acceptance of sharing the space with them. This goes to show that facing your fears really is the most effective way to conquer them (and that taking baby steps can help you get there!). Now, I am not saying that I won’t be startled whenever I see one of these ferocious-looking fang-teethed fish in the future, but at least I know I will stay in the water.  

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The barracuda frenzy concluded our first stop, and we got back on the boat heading to our second and final destination. This was the part I was most looking forward to. We were heading to my parents' wedding site. About 6 miles off shore and 25 feet below the surface of the ocean stands "Christ of the Abyss," a submerged bronze statue of Jesus, and this is where my parents were married.

I had seen their marriage video periodically while growing up, and honestly I couldn’t get enough. I mean how cool were my parents? They got married under water?! I had long thought about visiting it, but I had thought that it was only accessible by scuba diving. When researching our honeymoon, however, I discovered you could snorkel the site, and that’s when I knew we had to go.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect, and when we anchored at the site I was a little nervous. I knew it was a deeper snorkel, and the jellyfish were still out in droves. (You know that scene from Finding Nemo?) Nonetheless I jumped in and began scanning for the statue. Once I found it, everything around me became still. I was completely mesmerized.

You can only touch the palms of the statue because the rest is covered in fire coral. I took a deep breath and kicked my way down to touch the palm. I felt like I was touching a part of my history, and for a moment it was as if I were transported back in time. For a brief juncture I was part of that video that I held so dear.

I did not imagine that I would get so emotional visiting this place, but it quickly transformed from a bucket list item to a forever-cherished memory. I have to surmise this was compounded by the fact that I was seeing it for the first time with my husband on our honeymoon. I still look at these pictures from time to time (some of my favorites here on this page) just to soak up that feeling once again. The greatest thing about embarking on adventure is that you can't always predict what you might learn, or how it will make you feel.

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