Island paradise or military prison? Today, Dry Tortugas is a fascinating historical site with stunningly beautiful waters in the middle of Gulf of Mexico, but it’s past is full of promises not realized.
Can’t Get to Dry Tortugas National Park on the Cheap
Access to Dry Tortugas is only by ferry, private boat, or seaplane; none of them are cheap. The main visitor center is at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, the largest island in the 99 square miles within the park boundary. There are four “keys” today, down from seven when Ponce De Leon discovered these little islands 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. Fort Jefferson dominates Garden Key and claims the third spot on the list of largest forts in the US. The 70 mile trip from Key West requires a two and half hour ferry ride or a 45 minute plane ride.
Ferry Through the Open Ocean
When we planned this trip, I was worried about rough seas. Loretta does not like water to begin with, but after a “bucket list” trip to the Great Barrier Reef a few years back that resulted in non-stop barfing due to fifteen foot waves, anything to do with a boat takes a lot of persuasion. February seas can get rough, according to the ferry’s web site Being a good sport, she agrees to sacrifice herself in our quest to reach all 59 National Parks, and take her chances.
We embark the Yankee Freedom III catamaran style ferry with about 150 fellow passengers on a cloudless day. I triple check the forecast. Calm seas, one to two foot waves. Alas, my gamble pays off! A member of the ferry crew tells me this is about the calmest. The temperature is a perfect 70 degrees with low humidity. Loretta relaxes, not even taking a Dramamine! I feel very relieved. The ferry kicks into high gear as it leaves Key West and a large cruise ship behind, speeding up to 30 miles per hour. The wind blows in my face as I stand on the stern of the boat. The water splashes up the side of the boat, rocking with the gentle waves in the turquoise water under the early morning sun. I look to my left to see Keith, the single traveler that shared the sailboat adventure with us two days ago at Biscayne National Park. What a coincidence! He tells me he ran into Kevin, the captain of the sailboat at Biscayne and his friend Jamie yesterday on the streets of Key West. Looks like we all had the same itinerary.
Massive Fort in the Middle of Nowhere
The massive Fort Jefferson comes into view as the tour guide tells us about the seven keys discovered and the four that remains today. We dock gently right in front of the only entrance into the fort. Throngs of people disembark and pile onto the dock. Many wait their turn to take a picture in front of the Fort Jefferson sign. I said to Loretta, “The sign will still be here in an hour. Let’s take a walk on the outer wall of the 75 foot wide moat first”. It’s very strange to have this huge fort on a very small island in the middle of the ocean. The fort looks out of place. There are many birds, some large, that glide effortlessly above us. Schools of small fish and a few larger ones swim in the ocean next to the moat wall in crystal clear water. Sure enough, after our 30 minute walk all the way around the fort, the sign is still there and the crowd is gone”.
A Little History
The one hour tour teaches us the history of Fort Jefferson as we walk on the grounds and climb to the top of the fort. National Park Service site has the history in more detail, but in summary, it was built to protect the shipping routes from the east coast to the gulf region, and from the West Indies (Caribbean) to the US mainland. It’s massive with 16 million bricks but never fully completed. War technology changed faster than the fort can be completed, and its cannons never fired a shot. Technology advances in the mid-nineteenth century made this fort irrelevant. At its peak, 1100 people lived and worked in this fort.
The fort served as a prison for a time during the Civil War, and the only unfriendly encounter was from a Confederate ship that was tricked into believing the fort was fully operational when it was not. No shots were fired in the whole history of the fort.
Pardon of Assassin’s Helper
Dr. Samuel Mudd was the most famous prisoner held here. Who is Samuel Mudd you may ask. He was one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abe Lincoln. He was sentenced to life of hard labor, sent to Dry Tortugas, but was pardoned by President Johnson after he was credited with stopping yellow fever epidemic at Dry Tortugas.
There were significant engineering and design challenges (or mistakes) that slowed the building of the fort. The foundation was not strong enough to withstand the weight of the massive eight foot thick walls, which caused the built in cistern that collects rainwater to leak and mix with the salt water, which made the water undrinkable. The moat turned into an outdoor sewer that did not flush sufficiently because of the small difference between high and low tides. The iron shutters expanded and contracted with temperature but the bricks did not, causing it to crack and fall off. The living and working conditions were awful. Hot and unsanitary conditions spread disease and death, not to mention the hard and difficult work to build the fort. I can’t imagine 1,100 people living inside this fort, counting on rain water and a broken cistern system for survival.
When Ponce de Leon first discovered these islands, it was named La Tortugas for the large number of sea turtles found. Later on, the British renamed it Dry Tortugas because there is no source of fresh water here. So, we have a dry place full of sea turtles!
The crystal clear water and the mostly sandy bottom is calling me to dive in and see the world underwater, which makes up the vast majority of the park. First, I convinced Loretta to put on the mask and snorkel, and blow into the life jacket so she can float when she can’t swim. She looks good in yellow! I figure I would go check out the water and come back for her.
When I swim around the fort, I realize how strong the currents are. There is no way an already nervous Loretta can navigate these waters. So I decided she should not snorkel. However, I forgot one very important thing – I did not go back and tell her that. I telepathically transmit my message to her and continue with my snorkeling around the fort.
My flippers propel me along as I gaze at the large school of silver fish parting ways for me, glistening in the sun. I swim along the moat wall, and spot larger fish trying to hide under the rocks. Yellow, silver, stripped, and even a blue one that looks like Dori from Finding Nemo/Dori. While it’s not as clear (my mask fogs up) or colorful (they must use some specialized lighting) as what you see on TV, it’s relaxing and fascinating to float there, looking at the beauty of marine life in their habitat.
When I got back to shore, no Loretta! I frantically search the sandy beach and the water nearby for her, but can’t find her. I finally find her at a picnic bench under a tree. She is now fully dressed in street clothes and she is not a happy camper. Apparently, she didn’t get the telepathically transmitted message. She waited and waited for me to come back to swim with her, but finally gave up. I decide I’d better wait to tell her about the wonderful fish I saw. There is a time and place for everything. Now is not the time to tell her about my excellent snorkeling adventure.
Thought for Dry Tortugas:
Technology advances at an ever faster pace. Solution to old problems is irrelevant, just like the mighty Fort Jefferson is useless in the age of ironclad war ships. Keep up with technology or be left behind.
Impression of Dry Tortugas:
Dry Tortugas is unique. It is a combination of the natural beauty of a tropical paradise and mid-19th century history. There is the pristine water for snorkeling and the fort for the history buffs. The abundance of birds, including one with a seven foot wingspan that only weighs three and half pounds, is a bird watcher’s dream. I can only imagine the brilliance of the stars in the night sky, given its remote location. The island is small but never feels crowded. The 150 people the ferry brings quickly disperses throughout the fort and the beaches. This is one of the least visited National Parks. It attracts less than 0.1% of all National Park visitors. Only Isle Royale National Park has less visitors in the lower 48 states. The 4.5 hours stay on the island the ferry trip provides is just about right for a tour of the fort and a quick snorkeling session. The scenery is stunningly beautiful and the ferry ride enjoyable.
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Dry Tortugas Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Practical Info for Visiting Dry Tortugas
- A visit to Dry Tortugas is not cheap. Most people get there via ferry. Plan ahead and book your tickets online.
- The sea is unpredictable. The trip can be cancelled at any time.
- Yankee Freedom is pleasant. They provide breakfast and lunch. Don’t expect anything fancy, but it is adequate.
- Yankee Freedom provides snorkeling equipment.
- If you have a National Park pass, be sure to show it at the ticket counter to get a refund of the park entrance fee.
- Snorkeling is fun. Fish is plentiful. The water in February felt cold when you first enter, but after a few minutes, it feels nice.
- The sand on the beach is rough. The beach is small. Come here for the water, not the beach.
- There is a changing room and outdoor freshwater shower to raise off after snorkeling.
- The one hour tour of the fort is pretty good. There is also a half hour version for those who want more beach / snorkeling time.
- Camping is allowed. You must bring all supplies, including water.
- Key West is a wonderful town to explore. The central area is very walkable. The drive to Key West is beautiful.
Dry Tortugas Facts:
- Size: 64,701 acres, ranked 44th. Nearly all underwater.
- Visitors: 73,661 in 2016, ranked 52nd. Record was in 2000 with 83,704.
- Peak Month in 2016: 8,969 in June.
- Low Month in 2016: 1,313 in February.
- Entrance Fee: Included in the ferry ticket.
Date Visited: Feb. 6th, 2017