By Tao Woolfe
Boca Raton’s Red Reef Park is a busy place in the late afternoon as beachgoers scoop up kids, towels and folding chairs for the trek back to the parking lot.
Walkers and bikers take final laps along tree-covered trails, and feral cats seem to loom suddenly in the lengthening shadows.
On this particular crisp, windy Friday, the only people in the ocean are surfers enjoying the unusually active waves.
Among them is Chase Donaghy, looking cold and wet but happy afterward.
“The surfing here is hit or miss, but today it’s good,” he says, resting his turquoise surfboard against a guardrail. “I caught a couple of high tide breakers coming in.”
Donaghy, a business major at Florida Atlantic University, says he comes often to play in the ocean.
Connie Riecks lives a couple of blocks away. She, too, is a regular who has been walking Red Reef Park’s tree-covered trails for 20 years.
“I come in the evening when it’s quiet,” she says. “I enjoy the ocean, the nature, the cats, and private time away from everybody.”
Red Reef is a 39.7-acre beachside sanctuary set aside by voters who did not want ocean access cut off by a wall of high-rises.
Thanks to a series of bond issues from the late 1960s to the mid-’70s, Boca Raton purchased and set aside more than 100 acres of beachfront green space — which, besides Red Reef, includes Spanish River and South Beach parks.
Red Reef is prized by residents and tourists for its snorkeling and fishing. The artificial reef is home to such species as parrotfish and sergeant major, silver porgy, snapper and great barracuda.
Donaghy, an Orlando native who grew up surfing at New Smyrna Beach, says that on some days he finds Red Reef’s fish population disappointing.
“I snorkel here, too, and it’s pretty good, but I think there’s better wildlife further south towards Lauderdale,” he says.
That wasn’t always the case, says Ann Crawford Gregory, a Lynn University marine biology teacher. Back in the days before beach widening changed the landscape, the reef was teeming with fish and invertebrates, she says.
“I used to bring my students to this park and the reef was right here. You could put a mask on, put your face into the water and see angel fish and clown fish everywhere.
“Now the reef is covered up by sand,” says Gregory, who on this evening is watching the sunset with her husband, Dale Gregory.
The city of Boca Raton is working to restore the reef to its former glory.
Last fall the city completed a reef restoration project that added 15 limestone boulders (or “modules”) to the existing six artificial reef modules placed years ago at the south end of the park.
Once colonized, the new reef is expected to attract more fish species, sponges, urchins and crabs, city officials say.
For people not into ocean activities, the park offers other attractions.
Picnic tables and grills are scattered throughout a 3-acre forest of sea grapes, banyans and palms. The park has a nine-hole golf course, a playground for children and a boardwalk designed to allow people of all mobility levels the grace of an ocean view.
Across State Road A1A is Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which is considered a part of Red Reef Park. Visitors can see marine life exhibits, including the nature center’s extensive turtle rescue operation.
Boca Raton residents Alan and Sherrie Wade enjoy walking the entire length of the contiguous seaside open space from Spanish River Boulevard to Palmetto Park Road. This afternoon they are scaling a favorite bluff at Red Reef to look at the whitecaps and appreciate the wisdom of conservation.
“Preserving such a huge chunk of land was a visionary move by the city,” Alan Wade says. “We absolutely love it here.”
If You Go
Red Reef Park is at 1400 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton.
Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Pets are not permitted.
Cost of parking for a day is $25 for a passenger car, $65 for a larger vehicle. Free for residents with a permit.
Alcoholic beverages are not allowed in the park.
Visitors are not permitted to feed the wildlife.
For more information, call 561-393-7815 or visit www.myboca.us and locate Recreation Services, then Parks.
Willie Howard is taking some time off but will return soon.