Monday, March 3, 2014
A day in the Dry Tortugas and an unexpected trip to Miami
February 23-27, 2013
Camping in my brother’s driveway
Something we heard about last year that we decided to do on this visit is spend the day at Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the least visited national parks about 70 miles west of Key West. We were planning to snorkel while in the Keys at Sombrero Reef or Looe Key Reef, but figured it would not cost that much more to have the opportunity to visit the Dry Tortugas and get in an afternoon of snorkeling in a more exotic place. We were wrong of course—about the cost--but feeling up for an adventure, we decided to go for it anyway.
Other than by private boat, there are two ways to get to the Dry Tortugas, via the Yankee Freedom II, a catamaran ferry, or Key West Seaplane Adventures—both out of Key West. We opted for the ferry which departs daily from Key West at 8 am and returns by 5:30 pm. The trip out to the islands takes a little more than two hours, leaving plenty of time to explore the fort on the island, hang out on the beaches and get in some snorkeling. The trip includes a continental breakfast and picnic lunch, a guided tour of Fort Jefferson, and snorkeling equipment for those interested. Camping is also allowed on the island on a first-come, first-serve basis. You just have to load the boat a little early with all your camping gear including fresh water and food as there are no stories or concessions on the island. Visitors taking the ferry can also bring along their own kayaks based on a space available policy.
I will tell you straight out—other than seeing the moat and brick walls of the fort, I have no idea about this historical part of the tour. There was no way I was going to spend my time inside the brick walls of the fort with the white sandy beaches beckoning me to their shoreline. Vic did the tour and I headed to my first destination: the south beach of the island. Could you resist this beach?
For those who would like more information about the history of the islands, I offer a relatively brief synopsis. Ponce de Leon discovered these islands in 1513, naming them Los Tortugas after the many sea turtles he found there. The word “Dry” was added to let mariners know there is no fresh water available on the islands. The US acquired the seven keys that make up the Dry Tortugas as part of our purchase of Florida from Spain in 1822.
Located along a popular shipping route dating back to early Spanish explorers and merchants traveling along the Gulf Coast, the islands are steeped in legends about famous shipwrecks and sunken treasures. The most famous shipwrecks near the islands were the two Spanish Galleons worth over half a billion dollars discovered by Mel Fisher and his team: The Atocha and The Santa Margarita.
In 1846, the US Army began building a fort here to protect the shipping lanes of the Florida Straits and defend the Gulf Coast, but the fort was never finished due to several factors: lack of fresh water, the challenges of shipping bricks this far, and the invention of a new type of cannon which made the walls penetrable and the fort obsolete.
During the Civil War, the fort was used as a staging area and a military prison. The fort’s most famous prisoner was Dr. Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg who was accused of being a co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination. After the war, the fort used as a coaling station for US Navy ships.The most famous US Navy ship that ever fueled up here, just before its fateful mission to Havana, was the USS Maine.
Fort Jefferson was made a national monument in 1935 and, in 1992, to preserve Fort Jefferson and protect the island and marine ecosystems, the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas were designated a national park.
Even though I did not want to spend much time in the fort, its 16 million bricks and 2000 arches are quite impressive architecturally. This aerial photo I borrowed from the National park Service website give you an idea of the fort’s massive size and classic moat.
When visitors arrive to the main island (the only one open to the public), there is an opportunity to go on a guided tour of the fort or explore the island and its waters on your own. A wagon provisioned with snorkeling gear is stationed near the dock for checking out your own gear for the day. I had intended to borrow my sister-in-law’s snorkel and mask as the free rental equipment was pretty basic, but in the haste of our early departure, I forgot it. Their snorkels were not very good as the tops were an open tube as opposed to the dry or semi-dry snorkels that prevent water from seeping in. Also my mask kept fogging up even though I tried the old spitting in your mask trick. Eventually, I used liquid soap from the bathroom aboard the ferry to defog my mask. Good equipment would have made my day more enjoyable. Vic was less fussy than I (surprising?) but I like to dive down and explore things more.
There are two main beaches each of which give access to the best snorkeling around the island. The south beach access requires you to swim out and then head back in to an area where reefs have formed around ancient pillars. It is a little creepy dodging all the rusty underwater formation, but the marine life here was pretty good. I bought a cheap underwater camera to try out and am pretty disappointed with the results, but the photos give you a little glimpse of what the snorkeling was like.
When I was snorkeling by myself, I found someone to buddy up with and he wanted to show me an amazing conch he has spotted. He dove down and brought it up so his wife could take a photo of him with it and then he offered to take a photo of me with this queen conch. Rest assured, I watched him carefully put this beauty back in its original habitat.
Vic joined me in exploring the coral reefs by the south beach pillars then we decided to try the snorkeling at the north beach. Here you follow the sea wall of the moat and swim into some deeper waters with pillars near the wall. The marine life was even more abundant on the north shore but my time was cut short by several 4-5 ft. barracudas who seemed to be staring me down. Ha. I saw some huge angel fish in this area and made several diving attempts to get a photo of them, but they scattered each time I snapped the shutter. Another snorkeler came along with his GoPro camera and I vowed that would be one of my next purchases as you can do video or still shots underwater that look amazing.
Aside from the snorkeling, I don’t think just hanging out on the island for the day would be worth the cost. The boat ride to and fro did not offer any amazing views and if there had been rough seas, it would not have been a pleasant experience. So, overall, we were glad to see this beautiful jewel of an island, but we have had better snorkeling in Cozumel, Hawaii, and even Sombrero Reef off of Marathon.
Since our boat arrived back in Key West an hour before sunset, we decided to check out the celebration in Mallory Square. We were going to meet Karen and Al of RV Travels there but Al wasn’t feeling too well, so we set out by foot from the boat dock on our own. The walk to the square was less than a mile along charming residential streets. When I see local folk hanging out on the patios of some of these historic conch homes, I get romantic notions of living in Key West (only seasonally). Who knows what the future may hold?
Fortunately, the cruise ships were all pulling out just as we arrived back to the harbor on this rather sleepy Monday night, so the square was hardly crowded at all. The carnival-like atmosphere was very festive and entertaining.
The sunset turned out to be pretty decent too. I especially liked watching the sky with the boats enjoying the view in the foreground.
After our fun day, we returned to a strong dose of reality in Marathon as my brother was hospitalized for pneumonia and, in the middle of the night after our return, his heart went into a life threatening a-fib with the fear of congestive heart failure. The doctors had him transported by ambulance to a hospital in Miami with more specialized cardiac care. My sister-in-law and I drove to Miami (about a two hour drive) and stayed with my brother until we knew his condition had stabilized. As I write this now, my brother is still in a Miami hospital getting a pacemaker put in today. I drove back to the Keys a few days ago and my sister-in-law returned with her son to Marathon this weekend. She will go pick up my brother tomorrow or Wednesday. He is expected to make a full recovery but needs to, as he puts it, “throttle down” a little as his Type A personality often causes him to overdo it.
We are heading back to the Holiday Cove RV Resort in Cortez for the month of March. Not in our original plans, but while we were staying there in January, they let us know about a cancellation and we decided to return to a place we know and love rather than pursue our original plan of exploring the east coast of Florida in March. Sure helps to have good friends in the place we are returning to as leaving the Keys is never easy. We figure my brother could use the rest--no more underwater boat cleaning for him! Life throws us curve balls sometime. My mom used to call it, “God banging on your hood.” Gotta pay attention to those messages from the universe.