Summer is the best time of year for the active bloke or gal living it up in South Florida. True, the heat and humidity can be stifling, but the days are long and the sea breeze is never too dull to bring a little life to the party. So this summer, instead of hiding indoors, seeking refuge in climate controlled boxes, head out to John D. MacArthur Beach State Park and experience what Florida must have looked like before the great A.C. revolution.
Covering 438 acres of the varied terrain along the northern stretches of Singer Island, MacArthur Beach State Park is one of South Florida’s last natural refuges, where four distinct coastal ecotones merge seamlessly. The park not only allows visitors to explore and unwind by land and sea, while bulking up on some Vitamin D, but also is home to innumerable plant and animal inhabitants, some critically endangered. Enjoy the park responsibly and try to leave it cleaner than when you arrived.
1 Go Snorkeling!
Snorkeling off MacArthur’s beach is truly unique. Unlike the coal reefs so many equate with diving in South Florida, MacArthur’s reefs are mainly Anastasia limestone rock formations, an amalgamation of sand and coquina limestone (mollusk shells). A distinctive Florida assemblage, Anastasia limestone formations dot the coast from St. Augustine to Boca Raton, creating reefs and rocky shores perfect for fish and crustaceans to hide out and graze.
A living structure, MacArthur’s Anastasia Limestone Rock Reef is constantly growing, the work of colonies of bristle worms of the sabellariid family. Once the worm finds a solid surface, like the Anastasia limestone, it begins to build a protective, cement-like outer tube from sand. The sabellariid worms connect these tubes to one another, forming mounding reef structures, often exposed at low tide. MacArthur’s reefs attract an array of sea creatures, including tropical fish like damselfish and parrotfish; passing schools of tarpon; reef predators like barracuda and snook; a multitude of crustaceans; invertebrates—Caribbean squid are a common sight during the summer month; resting sea turtles, especially during the summer; and even the occasional ray.
The reefs are visible from shore and easily accessible with a short swim. If you go, snorkel, mask and fins are a must (there is no rental equipment). Fins are important, with ocean currents giving swimmers difficulties. And though the Anastasia rock formations are not as delicate as coral, do not touch. The sabellariid worm tubes are delicate and easily crushed by a heavy hand.
- Don’t forget your dive flag on self-guided snorkel tours! Dive flags are required for everyone who takes the plunge. If you don’t have one, pick one up at the welcome center for a $4 rental fee.
Snorkelers can join park staff for guided reef tours and explore the near-shore reefs with a professional. The guided tour is a great experience for those new the area or just beginning to explore the ocean. The tour not only will take visitors to the staff’s secret spots but is also a great chance to learn about the marine life that inhabits the reefs and waters at MacArthur. Snorkelers must bring their own equipment (including fins), be at least 10 years old (under 16 must be accompanied by an adult) and wear a safety vest. Reservations are required (561-624-6952); free with park admission.
For the newbie, join the MacArthur team for the Introduction to Snorkeling program. The class covers the basics, such as clearing the mask, proper fin and mask selection, diver safety, technique and more. The class begins on land, eventually working to the water to explore the Anastasia reefs—conditions permitting. An adult must accompany children younger than 16, and all participants are required to wear a personal floatation device while snorkeling. Reservations are required; call 561-624-6952 for dates, time and RSVP. Free with park admission.
2 Paddle Your Heart Out!
Experience MacArthur Beach State Park by sea and kayak around the park’s estuary and surrounding mangrove fringed islands. Not only a great exercise, kayaking also lets visitors explore the park solo (or with a brother/sister-in-arms on a tandem vessel), paddling along the idyllic cove at the northern end of the Lake Worth Lagoon. Whether you go solo on a self-guided tour or join a group with a guided expedition, there is always something new and exciting to see along the lagoon.
The relative shallow waters and the protective barriers make the cove the ideal kayak locale, limiting boater traffic, while the wide berth of the estuary tames the tidal currents. For those looking to make a long haul, trips into the Intracoastal are a must, with a visit to Munyon Island on top of the to-do list. Because the estuary is a relatively shallow respite, high tide is the best time to take to paddle, ensuring easy navigation. Check saltwatertides.com for tide information (Florida Atlantic Coast—PGA Boulevard Bridge, then select the date).
There is always something interesting to see along the tour, with birds of every feather flocking to the tidal nursery, scanning the mudflats at low tide, wading for a meal or perched high among the tree tops, eyeing their next catch. Depending on the season, kayakers might see manatees cruising along the sea grass beds, dolphin in pursuit of schools of bait fish throughout the Intracoastal, rays and a variety of juvenile fish.
- For those who are need of a kayak rental, MacArthur has you covered. Rental hours are between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and kayaks are available at a first-come, first-serve basis. Rates are as follows: single: $12 per hour, $30 for half day, $50 for full day; double: $18 per hour, $45 for half day, $60 for full day. macarthurbeach.org/kayaking
3 Angler’s Paradise!
The varied marine ecosystems of MacArthur offer anglers an array of fishing possibilities. Whether you dig fishing the reef, wading the flats, casting a fly or fishing from a kayak, MacArthur is the ideal place to bait up and cast out.
For those who dig digging for sand fleas and surf fishing for some pompano, MacArthur’s 1.6 miles of beach is the perfect spot to set up base (though the long haul from car to beach may deter the beginner). When the tarpon are running and the snook are hanging, MacArthur’s near-shore reef makes for an excellent spot to drop a line. Shore fishing usually sees an uptick during the summer as fish head for the cooler waters of the Atlantic.
- Tools for the trade: medium action rod and reel (spinning), sand flea rake, bucket, sand spike (to hold rod while line is out) and light tackle (2/0 hooks, 12-pound-test monofilament, pyramid sinkers—weight until they stay put in the surf). Look for sand fleas, not only for bait (free!) but also because their presence usually means fish are near.
For the inshore fisherman, whether by kayak or wading out in the flats, the mangrove-fringed estuary is rife with fish fresh for the taking. When the mullet are schooling, jack, bluefish, tarpon and snook are usually not far behind. Smaller species like mangrove snapper and juvenile groupers hang near the sheltered structure of the mangrove roots. If kayak fishing, try free lining (no weight) a mullet while drifting with the current (a small anchor is a must). The shallows between Munyon Island and the Burnt Bridge are always biting.
- Tools for the trade: light tackle, especially when kayaking. If kayaking, a small drift anchor will help slow your drift, while a large brim hat will help save your neck.
4 Don the Ranger's Cap!
Channel your inner Ranger Rick for a day and head out on a wildlife expedition. MacArthur is home to a vast array of animal species, 22 of which are designated as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Visitors marvel at the animal life that seeks sanctuary at MacArthur. From the stretching boardwalk, one can spy manatees slowly grazing the seagrass beds, dolphin streaking after errant mullet, raccoons cracking open oysters for a midday snack along the mangrove fringe and fish of a multitude of scale congregating along the boardwalk pylons. The insect life is vast and, if you can get past the heebie-jeebies aspect, quite interesting. Golden Orb Weaver spiders are simply everywhere; just look up and visitors are bound to see one spanning the empty space between trees along the trail. There is a consummate reptile presence, eagerly keeping the mouse population in check, while a few invasive species (green iguanas and curly-tailed lizards) are starting to make their presence known.
For the Audubon set, the bird life that flocks to MacArthur will have you grabbing for those binocs over and over again. The various ecotones and habitats of the park attracts birds of all flights of fancy, from wading and shorebirds to birds of prey and song birds and everything in between. Depending on the time of year and habitat within the park, birders can spy raptors like snail kites; osprey; hawks; great horned and barred owls; a slew of songbirds, including mockingbirds, jays (including the rare Florida Scrub Jay), robins, cardinals, thrushes, warblers and finches; wading birds, including egrets, herons, anhinga (the "devil" or "snake" bird), Roseate spoonbill, oystercatchers and ibises; shorebirds, including sandpipers, sanderlings and plovers; and numerous seabird species, including gulls, cormorants, terns, pelicans and gannets.
- The birding at MacArthur is top notch, but with so many species flitting to and fro, it is a bit daunting for the newbie, especially because so many of these species look similar to the untrained eye. For those looking for some guidance, free ranger-led bird walks embark on Sundays in accordance with low tide (capitalizing on wading bird activity in the estuary). Participants are encouraged to bring binoculars (though rentals are available for $5), and RSVPs are recommended; call 561-624-6970 for dates and times.
5 Explore the Nature Center!
The recently renovated Welcome and Nature Center opened its doors in March, bringing a new dimension to the park. The old exhibition center held a few terrariums housing native snakes, a fish tank or two depicting the park’s marine ecosystem and a handful of exhibitory notes about the park’s habitats, while a theater ran a video or two on a continuous loop.
Now, the Welcome and Nature Center is a state-of-the-art educational tool, giving visitors a deeper understanding of the park’s acreage. Delving into each of the park’s four distinct habitats, the center is equipped with hands-on activities for children and adults, fish tanks and terrariums, educational information, placards and interactive exhibits as well as a slew of items and artifacts brought in from the park itself, giving visitors an opportunity to explore the area’s history and parts of the park that largely goes unseen by biped visitors.
The new look of the nature center is big on aquariums and fish tanks, each designed specifically to capture the essence of each distinct underwater ecosystem within the park’s range. Standing sentinel, a massive mangrove exhibit designed by Living Color (the same cats who built the Miami Marlins’ home plate fish tank backstop) showcases the habitat that mangroves take root in and provide. Featuring a 10-foot cylindrical aquarium, the exhibit is tide sensitive, ebbing and flowing just as the estuary outside the center’s doors, giving a unique glimpse of the natural tidal cycle and how the marine creatures within react. The rock reef display houses two distinct tanks, both bringing to life the reefs that lay just beyond the park’s shores. Housing corals, sponges, crustaceans, invertebrates and tropical fish species, the tanks are bright and an apt representation of the unique reef structure along MacArthur’s beach, encouraging would-be snorkelers to don a mask and take the plunge.
Also receiving a long overdue upgrade, the new and improved theater has three new educational videos that viewers can watch on demand. Of the three videos, one explores John D. MacArthur Beach State Park from its ancestral beginnings to its current standing now as well as trekking the park’s habitats, viewing the life that calls each ecotone home. The other two videos train the lens on the Lake Worth Lagoon, with one exploring the waterway’s ecology, while the other takes viewers on a kayak journey from the Lagoon’s north end (MacArthur) to its south end (Ocean Ridge), discussing the restoration efforts and recreation opportunities along the way.
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10900 Jack Nicklaus Dr.
North Palm Beach, FL 33408
- Open 365 days a year, 8 a.m. to sunset. Admission costs $5 per vehicle (two to eight passengers), $4 for single occupant.