Volunteer for a Day, Biscayne National Park

Living 95 percent under water, Biscayne National Park is certainly one of the most unique and unusual parks in the system. You don't enter through a gated entrance as you do at so many other parks, but by sea.
01/28/2016 06:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Living 95 percent under water, Biscayne National Park is certainly one of the most unique and unusual parks in the system. You don't enter through a gated entrance as you do at so many other parks, but by sea. If you are not paying attention, you might miss the moment when you first dip your toe into the protected waters.

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The Harbor at Boca Chita Key, Biscayne National Park's best-known area. | Credit: Jonathan Irish

The best way to get the lay of the land at any of our National Parks is at the Visitor Centers (VCs) where park staff recommends their favorite areas to experience. At the Dante Fascell VC in Biscayne, you can get info on where to dive and snorkel, and where to push off by paddle from the shores of Convoy Point.

But the real heart of Biscayne lies in the Outer Keys, and to get out there, you need access to a boat -- not having one, we needed to get creative. Enter Paul and Carolyn, National Park volunteers at Biscayne for more than 12 years, who let us hitch a ride to Boca Chita Key where they would open the iconic lighthouse for visitors to explore. They were true snowbirds, coming down from Massachusetts for 6 months each year, spending their retirement in the sun and contributing to the community through the Park Service. Paul, a boat captain for three decades, recanted stories to me while careening the choppy waters from the VC to Boca Chita. He schooled me of the legend of the African pirate, Black Caesar, who'd evaded capture for years in the Florida Keys during the 17th century by turning his mast sideways so as to not be spotted on the horizon. He talked about the function of the nuclear power plant that has lived inside the park boundaries since before the park was officially established, and the crocodile habitat that resided at its hip; and so interesting to me, he storied remnants of "chug" boats found in the waters that at one time carried refugees from Cuba to Florida... what a wealth of information driving us through the majestic waters!

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Captian Paul, National Park Service volunteer at Biscayne NP. | Credit: Jonathan Irish

There were other volunteers waiting at Boca Chita when we arrived, also there to share information with visitors, clean up trash, monitor wildlife and perform other, cool, ranger-esque functions. And there stood the two of us -- volunteers for a day -- documenting the park through video and photography. We cleaned up trash too.

If volunteering isn't your thing, have no fear -- this water lover's national park provides vast and diverse ways to explore it and the warm climate welcomes all throughout the year. Sailing, pontooning, yachting, parasailing, jet-skiing and every other kind of water sport is at play in the park- and adjacent waters; paddling, snorkeling, diving and boating are favorites nearer to shore as they do not disturb the fragile seagrass and reef systems.

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Propeller marks show in the seagrass in this view from the Boca Chita Lighthouse. | Credit: Stefanie Payne

At Biscayne, I'd expected to learn everything about what was happening beneath the surface of the water -- the marine biology and science of the living reefs -- but what I found instead fascinated me more: the culture of park preservation occurring above the surface.

Volunteer opportunities are at play at nearly all of the U.S. National Parks. Learn more about how you can become part of the park system for a day or longer on the official site.

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2 parks down, 57 to go! | Credit: Stefanie Payne

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Biscayne National Park medallions adorn our treasured hiking sticks. | Credit: Stefanie Payne