christ-of-the-abyss-john-pennecamp-fl-state-library-archives-photoAugust, 2010: Plans are underway for a milestone birthday celebration as John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, America’s first underwater preserve, turns 50 years old. The historic event is set for Dec. 1 through Dec. 11, 2010, offering an ideal occasion for divers, snorkelers and other visitors to discover or rediscover the Key Largo park.

The park was dedicated Dec. 10, 1960, capping efforts by the late Miami Herald editor John Pennekamp to create the Florida Keys jewel that lies just 90 minutes’ drive from Miami. Today, the park named for Pennekamp draws more than one million visitors annually to explore its nature trails and beaches and observe the abundant underwater wildlife that inhabits its 70 nautical miles.

Celebration highlights will include an underwater birthday celebration at one of the park’s most famous offshore attractions, the nine-foot bronze “Christ of the Abyss” that rests gracefully in 20 feet of water. The iconic statue, a replica of the like-named statue in the Mediterranean Sea, was donated to the Underwater Society of America in 1961 by industrialist Egidi Cressi. It was placed underwater at Key Largo Dry Rocks on August 25, 1965 and has become a magnet for divers and snorkelers visiting the park.

Visitors to Key Largo also can participate in community-wide land- and water-based events for the whole family, including a planned world-record snorkel attempt and informational and educational activities in conjunction with Key Largo’s Protect the Reef Days. An educational expo is scheduled for Dec. 11, at the park with conservation-minded educational vendor booths as well as nationally renowned guest speakers.

Several independently owned dive shops in the Key Largo area are to offer special diving and snorkeling trips during the 11-day celebration, while local restaurants are concocting signature “Pennekamp 50th” culinary dishes and cocktails. Specially priced accommodations and activities are planned throughout Key Largo. For more information, visit the Florida Keys.

Photo: Courtesy State Library and Archives of Florida