Biscayne National Park – A Quick GuideTo Photography

January 15, 2016 ·

QT Luong
Sunset on Biscaye Bay from Elliott Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Sunset on Biscaye Bay from Elliott Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.

Biscayne National Park, a short distance offshore from Miami, is a unique marine park that requires planning ahead for water transportation in order to see

it clearly.  Only a sliver of the park is accessible by road during the daytime hours. For good landscape photography opportunities, you should camp on the islands, which is best done from late fall to early spring, as insects are thick in summer.  A concessionaire provides transportation to Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key outside of summer.  On the other hand, although they run snorkeling and diving trips year-round, the best underwater photography opportunities are in summer, especially June and July (no cold fronts and fewer winds mean calmer waters and better visibility.) Unfortunately, in Sept 2013, the park concessionaire went out of business, so until the park makes new arrangements, a private boat is necessary to explore the waters.

Convoy Point

Convoy Point is the only part of the park accessible by road. You can hike a 0.25-mile trail and boardwalk leading to the jetty, with views over Biscayne Bay. The most interesting subject here is the mangrove shore, which starts at the picnic area. To go further and find more viewpoints, wade along the shore, west (left) of the picnic area. The water is shallow enough that you can stand anywhere. However, renting a kayak allows you to glide along the water instead of stepping on sea grass.  A mangrove-lined creek a quarter-mile away offers slightly different scenery. If you plan your visit for the high tide, it is interesting to look underwater beneath the mangroves, where many small fish live.  Convoy Point is a day-use area, which opens from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., limiting the opportunities to photograph in the best light (sunrise), especially in summer.

Stream lined up with mangroves. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Stream lined up with mangroves near Convoy Point. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.

Elliott Key

As a barrier island, Elliott Key separates the Atlantic Ocean from Biscayne Bay. The key is long enough for a 7-mile trail, although you may find the 0.75-mile loop to be enough. It takes you along the two shores of Elliott Key, which present a drastically different character. Only rugged plants grow on the wave-battered Ocean side. These include the saltwort, which forms a vividly colored foreground to ocean views, best photographed in early morning.

Saltwarts on Atlantic ocean side, morning, Elliott Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Saltwarts on Atlantic ocean side, morning, Elliott Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.

The longest mangrove shore on the East Coast lines the Bay side. The warm water and soft sand was inviting, even in February. As I turned a corner the pier quickly disappeared from view. I could now see an unbroken line of trees with their dark green leaves reaching almost to the water. The mysterious place reminded me of the jungles seen in old movies. As I got closer, I observed an impenetrable tangle of prop roots, arching from the tree trunks to the water. In order to be able to work easily for a long time, with my full range of equipment including my large format camera, I had brought a small inflatable boat. It was just the kind used by kids, but it was sufficient to hold my camera bag, providing me with a platform from which to switch gear. As I towed it behind me, it glided effortlessly in the calm evening water. The setting sun illuminated the whole bayside shoreline. I set my tripod in thigh-high water for one last long exposure, the camera just slightly above the water surface, then headed back to the beach as the light was fading. As I retreated to the pleasant, grassy campsite close to the landing, I made sure to rinse my carbon fiber tripod thoroughly with freshwater since my previous one had been ruined by that lack of maintenance. The lights of Miami began to shine from just across the bay, yet the silent island felt like a world apart.

Coastal environment with mangroves, Elliott Key, sunset. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Coastal environment with mangroves, Elliott Key, sunset. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.

Boca Chita Key

Boca Chita Key is a small island with a campground, a picnic area and a harbor that is popular with boat owners. Although it is home to the most recognizable landmark in the park, the Boca Chita lighthouse, as well as a few historic buildings, there is less to photograph than on Elliott Key.  Because it is such a small island, I made the mistake of arriving during the summer without proper insect protection. Looking to explore nature subjects, I was eager to check out the nature trail that circles the island, but my companions declined to come with me. I found out why when the mosquitoes swarmed me along the trail. In a panic, I photographed a few small isolated mangroves east of the campground area.  I then ran back to the dock, having suffered what felt like hundreds of mosquito bites within a quarter of an hour. These mangroves have an orientation opposite to those on Elliot Key.  They are facing the Atlantic Ocean on the east, so they can be included as silhouettes for a colorful sunrise, or as a well-lit foreground at sunset.

Mangroves and Atlantic Ocean, Boca Chita Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Mangroves and Atlantic Ocean, Boca Chita Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.

Southern Keys

The Keys to the north are solid, but those in the south are penetrated by water, in the form of creeks, channels, and lagoons. They are an excellent place to explore the mangrove shores, as the water is considerably more clear than at Convoy Point, and the fish more numerous.  Mangrove shores are not thought of as swimming areas, but there is much to see underwater by snorkeling. Because of the shallow depth, you do not need a full underwater housing for your camera.  The concessionaire doesn’t provide transportation to the southern keys, so the area is best explored by private boat. However, the NPS occasionally organizes ranger-led tours to Jones Lagoon, which is teeming with wildlife.

Tall mangrove tree and channel, Swan Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Tall mangrove tree and channel, Swan Key. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.[
Large angelfish and mangrove roots. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Large angelfish and mangrove roots. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.

Reefs

Water occupies 95 percent of the park surface area. Concessionaire-operated trips departing from Convoy Point take visitors to the outer reef (45 minutes one-way) for excellent snorkeling and diving. A variety of live coral and colorful tropical fish thrive in the clear and warm Atlantic waters.  Even at the relatively shallow depth of the reef, I found scuba diving to be much more conducive to underwater photography than snorkeling.  Snorkeling trips used to leave twice a day, while diving trips took place only a few days per week.  The conditions are more calm in the morning, while more light penetrates the water at mid-day. The time of the day least favorable for landscape photography turns out to be the best for underwater photography.

Sand bars, light and clouds, Atlantic Ocean. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Sand bars, light and clouds, Atlantic Ocean. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.[
Yellow snappers and soft coral. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.
Yellow snappers and soft coral. Biscayne National Park, Florida, USA.

Q T Luong
January 2016

 

 

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QT Luong is a full-time photographer from California, known for being the first to photograph all 59 US National Parks - in large format. Ken Burns featured him in "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (2009). His photographs, published in dozens of countries around the world, have been the subject several magazine profiles, solo gallery and museum exhibits. He the author and photographer of "Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America's National Parks" (treasuredlandsbook.com), a large format book where photographs of the 59 US National Parks are augmented with detailed photography locations notes from which this series of articles is drawn.

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