Eco-Tourism in South Florida State Park
John D. MacArthur State Park is a hidden gem where you can find eco-tourism alive and well in south Florida. While there are 161 state parks in the state of Florida, this is the only one in Palm Beach County. Considered an environmental treasure, two miles of pristine beach preserve the natural, subtropical habitat. Sadly, these areas are almost nonexistent along the south Florida coast because of all the real estate development. The park was established in 1989 and is comprised of 438 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ft. Worth Lagoon on a barrier island that harbors seven species of plants and twenty-two species of animals designated as threatened or endangered.
This diverse community of plants and animals have forged a special symbiotic relationship with each other. Shade from trees in the hammock provide food and shelter for many species to thrive. The estuary is a mix of fresh and salt water and is home to oysters, fiddler crabs and manatees to name a few of the species that live in these nutrient-rich waters. The beach and dunes act as a barrier to wind and waves. The reef, which is made of limestone, is inhabited by parrotfish, damselfish, barracuda and loggerhead turtles to name a few.
The park welcomes visitors from all over the world and offers many opportunities for fun and learning in the sun. The online Calendar of Events outlines daily activities at the park such as guided nature walks, photography workshops, speaker series, concerts and more. Some are free and some have a fee. Promoting eco-tourism, the park has educational components for both the traveler and local community, and is focused on conservation and maintaining the bio-diversity of the area. The Welcome and Nature Center is the place to start your visit, get information and ask questions. There are some short videos and oftentimes art from local artists is displayed. The Welcome and Nature Center also houses a number of exhibits including a sea turtle tank, an under the sea reef and aquarium exhibit, and numerous displays with information on local, native species such as manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and land animals that live in the hammock. You will also find information on the pre-historic Native Americans that lived here and some facts on John D. MacArthur, the wealthy businessman and philanthropist, for whom the park is named.
The nearly two-mile, pristine beach is perfect for swimming, snorkeling and diving. You can surf fish from shore if you have a license. Marine life here is abundant and will delight both snorkelers and divers. There are two self-guided nature trails for your exploration. The Dune Hammock Trail takes you through a forest of tropical and sub-tropical trees. The Satin Leaf Trail is made up of predominantly tropical plant species.
There have been 150 different bird species identified at different times in the park. Some are migratory and some are year-round residents and include frigate birds, pelicans, cormorants, herons, egrets, storks, terns, kingfishers and tanagers.
Perhaps one of the most unique experiences offered at the park is kayaking. You can paddle the calm waters of the estuary, into the Lake Worth Lagoon and Munyon Island. It’s possible to spot manatees, dolphins, rays and a multitude of birds. You can join a two-hour, ranger-led tour or rent a kayak and explore on your own. If you have your own canoe or kayak you can bring it and launch it at the public site.
The Beach Outfitters & Gift Shop is where you rent your kayak, dive flags, binoculars and lockers. It’s also the place to pick up snorkel equipment, sun block, hats, water and beach towels. The gift shop also offers jewelry and art designed by local crafts people, books, t-shirts and home décor.
You can become a member of Friends of MacArthur State Park, a non-profit corporation, and support the work they are doing on behalf of this incredible ecosystem to preserve, protect and restore the park for generations to come. The Friends organization has raised funds for buildings, playgrounds and other visitor amenities and combined with State funds were able to build a new gift shop, renovate the Welcome and Nature Center, provide new interpretive displays and build the Pew Family Natural Science and Education Center. The Center features a brand-new classroom/lab with the latest tools and equipment to inspire curiosity and creativity among school children.
The park is a nesting ground for rare sea turtles such as the loggerhead and leatherback. These endangered turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. The Park draws 150,000 visitors annually to enjoy the beach and participate in environmental education programs such as sea turtle talks and walks, snorkeling reef tours, kayak tours, nature hikes, summer youth camps and estuary exploration. Not only did the founders identify conservation as their mission, education was also paramount in their ideals. The Park recently received two awards – one for a new curriculum entitled “Student Stewards: A Focus on Water Resources and another for the Park’s ongoing Natural Science Education Program.
The next time you’re in Palm Beach County, take time to experience the eco-tourism in this South Florida state park. Visiting the John D. MacArthur Beach State Park will allow you to witness conservation in action. Kayak the mangroves, snorkel the reef and experience a unique eco-friendly environment on the east coast of south Florida.
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