Celebrating the start of the Biscayne National Park Institute - the pilot program for intensive park experiences in all three of our local National Parks.

   Maybe you have a favorite spot you like to keep to yourself, or a great restaurant you’ve only told close friends about. After all, if everyone knows, maybe it will become too crowded. So, for those who love what Biscayne National Park offers, get ready to share.

   Although the Dante Fascell Visitor Center Gallery and Museum has long had interesting exhibits, the boardwalk provides a great view of the expansive Biscayne Bay, and there are Ranger-led programs about the Park, the simple fact is 95% of the park is water. The intriguing marine life of the reefs, the lure of shipwrecks along the Maritime Heritage Trail, camping on an island, paddling in Jones Lagoon are all great adventures to be had. Uh, don’t you need a boat for all that? Well yes, which is a major reason many people have limited understanding of how amazing the park is.

   Park Superintendent Margaret Goodro, a recent arrival, immediately recognized a new approach was needed if the beauty, culture, and history of the park were to be brought into the spotlight they deserved. Who, or what, to engage in this endeavor was the question. Jim Sutton, Executive Director, Florida National Parks Association, and some others had been working through the same issues. For more than a year, there were meetings, discussions, and logistical practicalities to tackle, and in late December 2016, the Biscayne National Park Institute (BNPI) was officially signed into an agreement.

   BNPI, a not-for-profit organization, is joined with the Park in a Cooperating Association that is the first of its kind not only in Florida, but also in the Southeast Region. “This unique, exciting, cutting-edge arrangement is for residents and tourists,” Goodro said. “It is a great concept for the National Parks System (NPS) and we want everyone to come be a part of what we’re doing.”

   Although there are other institutes in national parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, what’s new for BNPI is to be the first NPS marine institute with all operations being water-based activities. BNPI has been specifically structured to provide greater access to more of the park than ever before. 

   The heart of the program is not only the pleasure of being on and in the water. The eco-educational adventures also foster stewardship of the wonderful South Florida resources. When time is spent exploring marine habitats, walking trails of islands where native tribesrod thousands of years ago, or serenely paddling among sheltered mangroves as perhaps a manatee makes an appearance, there is the natural reaction of wanting to preserve this extraordinary environment.

  “Keeping Biscayne beautiful is an overarching goal,” Goodro continued as the scope of what BNPI is making available was described. “The activities are interactive and experiential and it’s all marine-based.”

   Sutton, who has been the driving force behind establishing BNPI, explained the improvements. “This time last year we had one boat and we currently have six different ones. Convenient access is what’s been missing and now we have a greater choice of activities with morning and afternoon departures.” Indeed, they have had more than 7,000 visitors in a matter of months.

   There are half-day and full day options as well as overnight camping. Boca Chita is the most visited island with the 1930s lighthouse and spectacular vistas. Elliot Key is the largest island and is where the campground is located. Adams Key, which lies on the north side of Caesar Creek, has a dock, a picnic pavilion, grills, and mangroves to paddle through. Hiking among the native plants on any of the islands while watching for wildlife can be done in a leisurely manner. The lesser known Jones Lagoon is so shallow, it makes a perfect nursery for hundreds of species of fish.

   “These are the undeveloped Keys,” Goodro pointed out, “the natural Keys you can no longer easily find outside our boundaries.”

   On the Atlantic side, coral reefs and shipwrecks await snorkelers. The amazing underwater world teems with fish of all shapes and sizes and turtles or rays are often seen. If you prefer a sailboat tour to power, close your eyes as the wind carries you across the water and let your imagination take you to centuries past when sail was the primary means for ships. BNPI staff or park rangers accompany each tour to talk about more than 10,000 years of human history on the bay and about the unique interconnected ecosystems. Visitors hear tales of pirates and pioneers, some of whom merely transited and others who settled for a time.

   Entrance to the Park itself and the Visitor Center is free. Prices for BNPI activities range from $39 per person to $149, and the full description, prices, and schedules can be found at http://www.bnpi.site; email info@biscaynenationalparkinstitute.org, Tel: 786-335-3644; or come by the shop at Biscayne National Park Dante Fascell Visitor Center,  9700 SW 328th St,  Homestead, FL 33035.

   BNPI is managed by the park’s not-for-profit partner, the Florida National Parks Association Southeast Region. This means in addition to enjoying the beauty, culture, and history of the Park, visitors who take the fee-based tours help support the NPS education programs that are provided throughout the year for no cost. These include Every Kid in A Park, Family Fun Fests, the Junior Ranger Program, the Park After Dark, and Teacher Programs as some of their highlights.

   Researchers will also benefit from BNPI as increased programs are envisioned. In June, they held their first Evening Lecture and Bay Cruise event when Emilie Stump, a seahorse researcher from University of British Columbia talked about seahorses, Project Seahorse, and her research in the Park.

   It’s true if you gather the family and say, “Hey, let’s go engage in an in-depth educational activity this weekend," you might not be met with wild enthusiasm. If you say, “Let’s take a boat to an island where we can climb up in a lighthouse and oh yeah, we might see dolphins on the way out,” you’ll probably get a different response.

   Setting aside what phrases are used, the expanded tours made possible by BPNI await and the waters of Biscayne beckon.

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