I had a tough time coming to terms with our visit to Biscayne National Park. Biscayne is classified as a marine park and 95% of its area is under water. All the best areas of interest are 7 miles off the coast on a slender chain of keys that are the start of the Florida Keys. The big snag is that for the past three years there have been no concessionaires offering rides out to the keys. Currently, the only way to explore the great snorkeling, shipwrecks, lighthouse, camping, hiking paths and kayak trails is going out your private boat. And that presents as big an exclusivity problem as we found at Dry Tortugas.

Biscayne NP keys on the horizon. >

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But we weren’t giving up easily.

Biscayne and Everglades NPs are about 25 minutes apart in South Florida. We scheduled a roomy 10 days to explore the both of them and allow extra flexibility to hopefully find a way onto the Biscayne keys. By the first time we walked into the Biscayne Visitors Center we had already ruled out a few options. Paddling 7 miles out in our inflatable kayak was strongly discouraged by the park staff we called because the ocean winds make the long, open water journey almost impossible. Chartering our own water taxi out of Miami for drop off and pick up days later was, as the park staff said, “cost prohibitive.” And attending the few short boat tours into the bay just wouldn’t give us the full, multi-day, deep-dive experience we were looking for. We hoped talking to the rangers in person and explaining our trip and situation might reveal a few other options. It did.

First, rangers Jay and Gary and the whole volunteer staff were incredibly nice and helpful. They went above and beyond to offer suggestions for activities along the park’s mainland coast – the boardwalk trail, the visitors center museum and movies and the best kayaking areas – and even attractions in the surrounding area of Homestead. Our favorite was the kayaking on a super windy day across the choppy bay to a calm mangrove tunnel and dwarf mangrove field. But the main goal was still finding a way onto the keys. Then the rangers said that sometimes volunteers take trips out with their own boats and we could maybe arrange to ride with them, especially if we were willing to join in the volunteering work.

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Perfect! We would love to volunteer! So our ranger friends put us in contact with some of the regular volunteers. We soon realized Biscayne had very devoted engagement from many different volunteers, making it the perfect park to share a bit about their impressive projects and volunteering at parks in general.

If you didn’t know, “There are many ways you can help care for your national parks, from one-time to reoccurring volunteer opportunities for youth, families, groups and individuals.” (NPS.gov). We’ve encountered volunteers at every park we’ve been to so far – campground hosts, visitor center receptionists, gift shop cashiers, ranger program aides, astronomy festival presenters, trail patrollers. Biscayne’s own NPS website offered volunteer opportunities in areas of interpretation and visitors services, environmental education and outreach, science and resource management and maintenance.

As we found out more about the volunteers at Biscayne, one group caught our attention. I reached out to one of the group’s founders to see if they had any projects scheduled on the keys during the next week, but also because I was interested to learn more about their work. I think their story is really worth sharing because it is shows 1) one or two passionate people can start something that makes a huge difference and 2) how meaningful and impactful volunteering at your parks can be. Here’s the brief bio of Coastal Cleanup Corporation from co-founder Suzy Pappas:

“Coastal Cleanup Corporation was founded in 2010 by my husband, George Pappas and I, because we discovered that BNP [Biscayne] needed assistance with their marine debris problem. Because the barrier islands are located so close to the Gulf Stream and the Florida Current, the park gets an inordinate amount of marine debris washing up on the islands each year. Most debris derives from commercial fishing activities in the Western North Atlantic, and from coastal dumping in South America, Central America, islands in the Caribbean and from places as far away as Portugal and West Africa. Not only is the trash that comes in with the tides unsightly, but it can entrap, entangle, poison, or choke local wildlife. Probably the most detrimental effect on the barrier islands is that the trash was so deep 5 years ago that loggerhead sea turtles abandoned their nesting attempts on the coastal dunes during the breeding season.

Coastal Cleanup Corporation has helped out with directing volunteer cleanups, logistics, grant writing… We have spearheaded over 50 cleanups, worked with several hundred volunteers, and have removed about 20 tons of marine debris from the ocean-side beaches of the park. Since we have augmented the resource management tools already in place, loggerhead sea turtle nesting activity has increased significantly within the park. And for the first time ever, two years ago, there was an endangered green sea turtle that nested successfully on Elliott Key where we had cleaned.

CCC volunteers with a morning haul of marine debris from Elliott Key. >

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Trash must be hauled back from the island by boat, 8 miles across Biscayne Bay. >

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We enjoy leading volunteer cleanups at Biscayne National Park for several reasons…. Local volunteers are also so wonderful to work with, and it is so great to see people take an interest in stewardship of their own environment. George and I are both natives of South Florida, so it is important to us to conserve what we grew up with here. Giving back to Biscayne National Park is one way that we can help out and make sure the wildlife, especially the sea turtles, are here for future generations of visitors at the park.”

Suzy failed to mention the CCC received the Volunteer Group Award in the NPS’s 2013 Hartzog Award. Plus, the award write-up explains that the Pappases reuse the marine debris as “George weaves indestructible doormats from the seemingly endless miles of fishing trap line that washes ashore and Suzy creates unique pieces of jewelry from items found on the shore.” And to top it off, they have led 400 alternative spring break volunteers who provided over 2,500 service hours (again, numbers as of 2013). I found this student involvement especially cool because I was president of the Alternative Spring Break organization at Mizzou and the 5 trips I went on were always the highlight of my year (and I’m very proud that in the 3 years since I left ASB expanded to something like 120 trips throughout the year and is the largest such organization in the country). I’ll have to suggest a a trip to Biscayne!

Unfortunately, we were not able to coordinate our own trip to the keys with CCC or the other volunteers (not unexpected since it was very short notice and Thanksgiving week). It was the first park we couldn’t camp at. So the keys of Biscayne National Park will remain a mystery to us (not for lack of trying ;)). But we definitely saw enough to understand why the Pappases care so deeply about the park land and wildlife. Their passion and dedication is inspiring, as is the selfless work of countless volunteers in all areas of the NPS system.

For volunteer opportunities at an NPS site near you, visit volunteer.gov. See our Biscayne video here and incredibly interesting People of the Parks encounter here.

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Written by Cole

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