Hidden gems: Biscayne National Park Institute’s elusive boat tours (includes video story)

On a recent Saturday around 9:30 a.m., the Stingray – a passenger boat contracted by the Biscayne National Park Institute – steamed toward Boca Chita Key with 23 people aboard including a captain, a naturalist and a dozen pale tourists from across the country. 

Then, their weekend plans to explore the scenic views of Biscayne Bay were interrupted by an unexpected visitor.

Splashes were heard in the distance. Heads spun to look at the commotion. 

“Holy crap!” cried out a 10-year-old kid from Ohio. “Look there’s a dolphin!” Soon, a second one appeared and everyone on board crowded the rail. Later they would see a shark, a piece of bizarre South Florida history and an ancient lighthouse. 

Originally operating out of Homestead in 2018, the institute began departures from Coconut Grove in December 2021. These tours were created to increase access to Biscayne National Park. 

The Stingray leaves the dock at Dinner Key Marina twice a day, seven days a week. It is one of the best ways to experience the diverse marine life and rich history of Biscayne National Park – which is 95% underwater. For around $83, customers can board the Stingray on the Boca Chita Heritage Cruise Tour, a 3.5 hour journey starting at 9:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m.

The Stingray. (Kimberly Peters/Caplin News)

An hour out, the boat slows to a stop to observe the astounding views of Miami, Key Largo, Homestead, Key Biscayne and Florida City, which all fill the horizon at once.

The second stop is Boca Chita Key, known for its picturesque views and a near-century old lighthouse. Passengers can disembark here for an hour to explore the island by themselves, enjoy the views and take a swim.

“The fact that it feels like a tropical paradise has taken a step away from your average national park,” states naturalist Daniel “D.W.” Wynne about Biscayne Park. “You can fish, explore and feel far away from everything.” 

Back in the 1930s, Boca Chita Key was once owned by entrepreneur Carl Fisher, who helped develop Miami Beach. It was envisioned as a vacation spot but then became part of the park in 1968. 

The lighthouse has a particularly bizarre story. It was shut down hours after its opening by the U.S. Coast Guard. It turns out the owners didn’t have permission from the U.S. Coast Guard to build it. 

After leaving Boca Chita, the Stingray continues to a series of houses located about seven miles from the coast. Stiltsville has a history dating back to 1937, when “Crawfish” Eddie Walker built a shack on stilts. The homes are known for parties and gatherings.

Over the years, hurricanes and fires have devastated the iconic shacks. Of the original 27 structures, only seven remain. 

As of now, all of the remaining homes are privately owned, but are still in park waters. Anyone can rent one of the houses for recreation, as long as they get permits from both the park and the private owner.

The Stingray winds through some of the original houses, while the boat’s naturalist explains its infamous history and its future in the park. This allows passengers to take pictures and video as the boat slows down.

“Having our Coconut Grove location helps us meet our mission of increasing access to Biscayne National Park by meeting the residents and visitors of Miami where they are and departing from a location that is convenient for them.” stated Claudia Murga, program coordinator for the institute.

More details on the park and tour(s) can be found on the institute’s official website

All visitors are expected to arrive at Dinner Key at least 15 minutes before departure. Parking is not included; visitors have to either access the Paybyphone app or use the recommended Regatta Parking Garage located nearby. The tour is offered for all ages, but minors must be accompanied and supervised by an adult. 

FIU student Anna Trinidad and Kimberly Peters wrote this story as part of a cooperative agreement between FIU’s Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media and the Spotlight. Click here to read the original article published in the Spotlight.

Anna Trinidad is a senior majoring in digital journalism. She hopes that her dedication to multimedia projects will land her a career as a news anchor in the future.

Kimberly Peters is currently a senior at Florida International University pursuing a degree in digital media and journalism. She is passionate about writing and hopes to pursue a career in sports journalism.