NEW PENNEKAMP STATE PARK CORAL CAM GIVES A VIEW INTO THE BLUE

The Coral Cam presents a beautiful undersea vista. CONTRIBUTED

Famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau taught us, “People protect what they love, they love what they understand and they understand what they are taught.” The Friends of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park are taking this famous sentiment one step further – by installing a state-of-the-art coral camera to showcase what lives in our waters. Their goal is to facilitate people seeing, learning about and appreciating our coral reef.

“To watch Coral Cam is to immediately become immersed in a world that is startlingly beautiful and quietly mesmerizing,” said Ann Helmers, president of the Friends group. 

She’s right. In the world beneath the waves, there’s always something fantastic and new to experience. In the Florida Keys, we boast the world’s third largest barrier reef and the only one in the continental U.S. Our sea turtles, lobsters, fish and sharks all rely on this habitat for shelter and foraging. This reef, and the biodiversity it supports, put our diving on the map and sustains our blue coastal economy. 

The new Coral Cam, which was installed at Pennekamp State Park, will allow anyone in the world to “see what life is like at our reef,” said Donna Dietrich, a Friends board member. “It is a great tool for teaching.”

Inspiration for the camera came two years ago when board member John Davidson wanted to scuba dive with his kids for Father’s Day. The prior week had been windy, and they weren’t sure if conditions would be favorable. To their surprise, a search for underwater webcams in the Keys came up empty.

“It occurred to me … this might be something that we should explore,” Davidson said. For him, the feed allows anyone to see real-time conditions on the water. It’s incredibly useful for dive shops and divers, he added. 

Terry Helmers, a volunteer diver on the project, works to install Coral Cam. CONTRIBUTED

Beyond that, the camera will allow those who can’t snorkel and dive any more, or who have distance, physical limitation or other access restrictions, still experience the park’s beauty – from a distance, said Helmers and Davidson. “So we hope Coral Cam will not only enable everyone to view the living reef at any time anywhere in the world, it will encourage every watcher to become an advocate in helping protect and preserve the unique coral and the sea life that surround it,” the Friends’ president said.

The innovative camera will also be used to test water temperature and salinity, Dietrich added.  

The camera was custom-designed by inventor Trevor Mendelow of A View Into the Blue — the perfect partner for this ground-breaking project, Davidson said.

The camera sits inside a glass dome that has its own cleaning mechanism to prevent biofouling. Coral Cam can be controlled from anywhere in the world with internet and has the ability to pan-tilt-zoom. It is entirely solar-powered. Permanently mounted on a piling at Mosquito Bank, it communicates with a radio in the park almost five miles away to project its live broadcast – the only remote camera to do so via radio waves. Mendelow’s methods produce no toxic chemicals and have almost no impact on marine life, he said. His first Keys project was a similar camera under the Bahia Honda Bridge. 

“There are other underwater cameras, but none that are out in the middle of the ocean,” said Vanessa Walso, a volunteer and Friend of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park who helped to install the camera. “Our camera is completely self-sufficient with its own power and broadcasting abilities.” 

Coral Cam launched on World Oceans Day in June, and the live feed lives on the Friends of John Pennekamp YouTube channel. Search for “Pennekamp Coral Cam” to get a real-time view. In the comments, there are links to Google spreadsheets maintained by the YouTube channel moderators identifying and tracking all species spotted on the Coral Cam. In less than a month, an octopus has come by to explore the glass case; sea turtles, sharks and rays glide past and a curious angelfish comes by almost daily to gaze into the camera, Helmers said. The list grows daily. 

Funding came from many individual, local and international donors. Lead sponsors included the Bass Pro Foundation, the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, the Ocean Reef Conservation Association and the Rod and Gun Club.  The live feed will remain open access until the end of the year. In 2023, it will become a members-only privilege, though a “best of” video series will remain accessible to all. Membership in Friends of Pennekamp can be purchased at pennekampparkfriends.org and costs $35/year for a single, $60/family. Membership includes benefits such as free monthly park entry and supports the Coral Cam as well as other improvement projects – including additional cameras.

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Tiff Duong is a self-made mermaid who loves all things cheesy (romantic and dairy) and thrives in the 3 am hour. She believes in leaving it all on the field and has never met a (mis)adventure she didn't love.