Comprised of over 200 separate islands and islets, the Florida Keys have the only living coral reef formations to be found in the continental United States. Dr. Gilbert Voss of the Marine Institute of the University of Miami, first became aware of the extent of damage occuring to the reef structure during his studies of the marine species in the Keys. In 1957, a biological conference concerned with the preservation of the natural resources of South Florida was held in Everglades National Park. At this meeting, Dr. Voss described the extent of damage which was occurring to the reef structure that he had noted during his studies in the Keys.
The tourist trade was taking its toll on the coral structures as souvenirs for visitors. Seashells, corals, sponges, sea horses, and marine life were being hammered, chiseled, and even dynamited to provide knickknacks to the tourists. The coral reefs that took thousands of years to form, were quickly decimated by thoughtless vendors. Dr. Voss then suggested that a no-more-profitable scientific project could be undertaken than the protection of this area. Without some restrictions on the exploitation of the reefs, commercial interests would easily bring about the extinction of the only hard coral reef formation in North America. Dr. Voss successfully recruited conservationists to support his contentions that the reef should be protected, but his most powerful ally would eventually become an assistant editor for the Miami Herald, John D. Pennekamp.
Pennekamp had played a major role in the establishment of Everglades National Park as legislative chairman of the State Commission appointed to bring it about. He was the first chairman of the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials and he was a member of a civilian team of consultants which surveyed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Department of the Interior in 1954. He also had received numerous state, local, and national conservation awards.
When the two men joined forces they were able to utilize the research of Dr. Voss and the journalistic effort of John Pennekamp to organize a coalition of conservationists that would undertakethe project of protecting the valuable marine resources. The road ahead was not an easy one, but the efforts of Dr. Voss and Mr. Pennekamp were sufficient enough to get the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials to designate a 75-square-mile section of offshore Florida as a permanent preserve. For three years the advocates of the preserve struggled to win approval for the park, and successfully resisted all opposition from the commercial interests that wished to leave the reefs open for pillage.
In the spring of 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the area as Key Largo Coral Reef Preserve. When the dedication ceremonies were held on December 10, 1960, Governor Leroy Collins made a suprise announcement, naming the United States' first undersea park as John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Governor Collins named the park after Pennekamp in appreciation of the continuous editorial support that he had given in the Miami Herald.