July 29, 2020

This picture was taken before the pandemic on the day the Friends group celebrated becoming certified by the Florida Park Service.

Contributed This picture was taken before the pandemic on the day the Friends group celebrated becoming certified by the Florida Park Service.

KEY LARGO — With enthusiasm, Friends of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Dagny Johnson State Park president Ann Helmers talks about how the citizen support organization is working toward showcasing the full complement of both Key Largo parks and preserving their natural beauty and unique experiences for future generations to come.

“As a person who has loved the ocean long before I ever dreamed of being able to support a park, Pennekamp is an amazing place,” Helmers said. “When I first started diving, we went to Christ of the Abyss. This may sound trite, but Pennekamp is and always will be a place for me to continue to explore. It’s a great place to put in a kayak and canoe.”

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park encompasses 70 nautical square miles adjacent to the land-side property that features two man-made beaches, walking trails, picnic areas, a campground, visitor center, aquarium, concessionaires and a citrus grove.

Directly offshore in about 4 feet of water lies a mock Spanish shipwreck. It consists of 16 cannons, an anchor and ballast stones that recreate a shipwreck from the 1733 Spanish “plate” fleet.

“This ‘wreck’ is a relatively easy snorkel in the protected waters off Largo Sound that the whole family can enjoy. The exhibit consists of real artifacts taken from wreck sites and were relocated here to give park visitors a sense of the maritime heritage that lies along the Florida reef tract,” said park ranger Chris Lamond.

This mock wreck is only a fragment of what the Friends aim to preserve.

The Friends group was chartered the beginning of this year and, despite the pandemic, has been doing what it can to help the parks.

“We have been carrying on with business and meeting virtually. We haven’t been able to do our kick-off event or launch party in April like we were planning because of COVID-19,” Helmers said. “We are continually looking for fundraising opportunities and grants and we are trying to build up our membership.”

The Friends had planned to celebrate its inception after receiving an $81,000 donation from the Ocean Reef Club, the Ocean Reef Community Association, the Ocean Reef Conservation Association and the Ocean Reef Rod and Gun Club in May to restore Pennekamp’s mooring balls.

The Friends are currently up to 30 members and are actively seeking volunteers to join the board or serve on committees.

“Joining this Friends group is the best way to make a lasting impact that will keep the reef, the living creatures that depend on it and the plants in Pennekamp and Dagny Johnson healthy and flourishing for many generations to come. Every membership, donation or hour of volunteer support is a gift to future visitors,” Helmers said.

The Friends are fundraising to restore the playground at Pennekamp, a boardwalk at Dagny Johnson and educational programming and kiosks for visitors among other things.

Once slated to become a condominium development, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park contains one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock in the United States. The park is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals, including wild cotton, mahogany mistletoe and the American crocodile. It features over 6 miles of nature trails for hikers, birdwatchers and bicycle riders.

Helmers and husband Terry have a history of supporting Florida’s Heritage Sites.

In 2000, the couple supported Miami-Dade’s first underwater preserve, Half Moon. It’s a sunken 150-foot, two-mast racing sailboat just outside Bear Cut between Key Biscayne and Virginia Key.

And now as full-time residents in Monroe County, the Helmers support their local parks.

“Really what it’s all about is becoming a member of a group that wants to be stewards of the parks, to be a member of a community and make the parks a place that’s going to be magical today and for many years to come,” Helmers said. “It’s going to be there for us, our children and our grandchildren.”

Both Pennekamp and Dagny Johnson parks remain fully operational during the pandemic, according to Paul Rice, manager of both parks.

“Pennekamp is offering all services with additional safety procedures in place as recommended by the CDC, state of Florida and Monroe County. We are operating at a lower occupancy to help maintain social distancing,” he said.

The cost to join Friends of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Dagny Johnson State Park is $35 per individual, $60 per family member and gains a monthly free admission to the park for a year.

For more information, visit pennekampparkfriends.org, email Ann Helmers at president@pennekampparkfriends.org or find them on Facebook.