Biscayne National Park: 10 Facts About This Natural Treasure Trove

A living coral reef, shipwrecks, mangroves, 600 species of fish, and more.

Biscayne National Park

National Park Service / Public Domain

Arriving at Biscayne National Park, with its vast mangrove forests and peaceful waters, it’s hard to believe that the still scenery is so close to bustling Miami.

Established in 1980, Biscayne protects some of the rarest islands, coral reefs, and crystal clear waters in the country. From threatened Florida manatees to sea turtles and dolphins, there is no shortage of critical marine life thriving inside the park.

Here are 10 incredible facts about Biscayne National Park.

95% of Biscayne National Park Is Underwater

Biscayne coral reefs

Shaun Wolfe / National Park Service

At least 95% of Biscayne National Park is located underwater, which is more than any other national park in the United States.

At 172,971 acres, the park is actually the largest protected marine park in the national parks system, helping to safeguard some of the world’s most essential marine creatures for maintaining biodiversity and environmental balance.

Most of the park’s visitors opt for water-based activities such as kayaking, snorkeling, boating, and scuba diving.

At Least 600 Species of Native Fish Live in Biscayne National Park

Along with an impressive list of neo-tropical water birds, marine mammals, and insects, Biscayne National Park supports at least 600 species of native fish—with more being discovered all the time. These include fish that are considered high value for recreational fishing, such as mutton snapper and black grouper, but also rarer species with special protection in place, such as spearfish, sturgeon, and sharks. 

The Park Is Threatened by Invasive Lionfish

Invasive lionfish in Florida
Brian Sevald / Getty Images

Not all of the park’s fish are necessarily good for the ecosystem. The lionfish, for example, is an invasive species native to the Indian and Pacific oceans that became established in the Atlantic waters of Biscayne National Park sometime around 2008.

Lionfish are an issue mainly because they have very few natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, but they’re also voracious predators that compete for habitat and food resources with ecologically essential native fish. They are also dangerous to humans due to their venomous spines.

The Park’s Conservation Has a Dramatic Past

Initially, protecting the land that is now Biscayne National Park proved to be no easy task. In the 1950s, when Americans started taking more vacations and moving to the state of Florida, property values began to rise at an unsustainable rate. Developers came up with a plan to dredge up 8,000 acres of bay bottom and a 40-foot deep channel to create a new, major industrial seaport.

A local group of environmentalists quickly jumped into action with a counter plan to instead create a national park to protect the area and the wildlife that lived there.

What followed was a nearly decade-long feud between those who wanted the land developed and those who wanted to protect it, culminating with developers bringing in bulldozers to “spoil” part of the area (a section of the park still known today as the "spite highway").

Public support for the national park was simply too strong, however, and the bill to protect Biscayne as a national monument, and eventually a national park, was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in October of 1968.

It Protects Part of the Only Living Coral Reef in the Continental US

Biscayne National Park has the important responsibility of managing a portion of the last living coral reef in the continental United States, which is also the third-largest barrier reef tract on Earth.

Unfortunately, not only is the reef here suffering from environmental issues like warming waters and nutrient pollution, the National Park Service and Department of the Interior (DOI) have come under fire for failing to adequately protect the reef.

In December 2020, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) sued the DOI and the National Park Service for delaying actions to phase out commercial fishing to protect natural resources within the park, something the NPCA said the former agreed to do back in 2014.

The Park’s Extensive Mangrove Forest Helps Keep Water Clear

Mangroves in Biscayne National Park
benkrut / Getty Images

On the shore of the bay, Biscayne boasts one of the longest continuous stretches of wild mangroves left on Florida's East coast. Thanks to their impenetrable root systems, mangroves help slow water from the land into the bay, allowing sediment to settle and keeping the water clean and clear in the process.

These hardy plants also provide shelter, breeding areas, and nesting areas for organisms both under the water’s surface and in its branches.

There Are at Least 50 Shipwrecks Preserved Under the Water

Shipwreck in Biscayne Bay
Stephen Frink / Getty Images

The Maritime Heritage Trail, a unique archaeological underwater trail accessible by either scuba or snorkel, showcases six of the park’s 50 shipwrecks. The six wrecks span almost a century, from the Arratoon Apcar that sank in 1878 and the Erl King that sank in 1891, to the Lugano in 1913 and the Mandalay in 1966.

The marine trail also encompasses the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, also known as the “Eye of Miami,” built in 1878 just a few hundred yards from where the Arratoon Apcar ran aground that same year.

Biscayne Protects Four Distinct Ecosystems

Biscayne National Park is made up of four separate ecosystems, each consisting of a different community of organisms and physical environment: the northernmost part of the park (made up of the coral reef), the Florida keys section, the southern expanse of the bay, and the mangrove forest along the main shoreline.

Biscayne National Park Is a Sanctuary for Federally Protected Plants

Consolea corallicola, or semaphore cactus
ArendTrent / Getty Images 

Biscayne has more than 60 plant species listed as threatened or endangered at the state level. In addition, the beach jacquemontia flower is considered endangered by federal standards, and Johnson’s seagrass is considered threatened.

The semaphore cactus, of which the park contains the largest known population in the world, is currently a candidate for the Endangered Species Act. 

Some of the World’s Most Endangered Animal Species Live Inside the Park

Wild manatee in Biscayne National Park
Jon Lauriat / Getty Images 

At least one marine invertebrate, the pillar coral, is considered rare and endangered by the state of Florida, along with one federally endangered fish (smalltooth sawfish) and two federally endangered butterflies (Miami blue butterfly and Schaus swallowtail butterfly).

There are also a number of endangered reptiles, including four species of sea turtle, as well as both marine and terrestrial mammals, such as the Florida manatee and the Key Largo cotton mouse.

View Article Sources
  1. "Fish." National Park Service.

  2. "Invasive Lionfish." National Park Service.

  3. "Biscayne National Park- Mangroves." National Park Service.

  4. "Threatened and Endangered Plants." National Park Service.