A Fort in the Middle of the Gulf
[Dry Tortugas National Park, Dec 27, 2017]
Finally, the Dry Tortugas post! B and I worked really hard to not get excited about it lest some last-minute cancellation due to weather or whatever else foiled our plans again, but we actually made it!
Dry Tortugas National Park is located 70 miles West off the coast of Key West, making it one of the most remote national parks and the endpoint of the Florida keys. The Dry Tortugas were first discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who named the islands “Tortugas” because of the large population of sea turtles. The adjective “dry” was added on later to make it clear to mariners that there is no fresh water here – something very important to know back in the day.
The 100-square-mile park is mostly open water and seven small islands. It is only accessible by daily ferry, your own boat or charter boat, or seaplane. The daily ferry (called Yankee Freedom) costs $175 per person ($10 credit per person is applied for national park annual pass holders) and takes about 2.5 hours. A seaplane costs $326 per person for a half day trip (2.5 hours in the park) or $578 for a full-day trip (6.5 hours in the park) but it only takes 40 minutes to get there. We opted for the ferry because it was a lot cheaper. Advance reservations are a must, at least 2-3 weeks out.
The Yankee Freedom ferry departed at 8 am from the ferry terminal just a couple of miles from our hotel. We had to be there an hour early to check in. The earlier you check-in, the earlier you get to board the boat. B and I were in the first group to board and were happy to be able to take our pick from both indoor and outdoor seating options on two decks.
Swells were 2 to 4 ft so the crew recommended a dose of dramamine to prevent sea sickness before departure and one more before coming back. They sold it on the spot for a buck per dose, which we took just in case. The boat holds 250 passengers but they only sell 175 tickets so that everyone can have comfortable seating and move around to different parts of the boat if needed. Continental breakfast and lunch were provided on the boat – it was nice not to worry about bringing our own food.
The 2.5 hour journey to the Tortugas went by quickly. One of the crew members on the boat served as a tour guide and filled the time with stories about the islands that lie beyond Key West. We also enjoyed some time outside – the weather was warm but not too hot and the swells were not as bad as we anticipated.
Finally, around 10:30 am, the boat docked at Fort Jefferson, the giant brick fort that stood on Garden Key, the largest island in the Tortugas.
Our first order of business was to duck into the visitor center so I can get my passport stamp. A tank with three lionfish was on display there. Although they are beautiful, they are not native to Florida and are causing problems in the fragile ecosystem here. Since they are outside of their habitat, they don’t have any natural predators here and they can eat 30 times their stomach volume. The problem is so bad that visitors are encouraged to report any lionfish sightings.
So, what is a giant fort like this doing in the middle of the Gulf, you ask? I was wondering the same thing. This and many other questions I had were answered during a 90-minute tour lead by one of the crew members of our ferry.
The Dry Tortugas may seem remote and inconsequential today, but in the mid 1800s, any ship traveling from the Gulf ports to the Eastern seaboard would have to pass through here, making this a strategic location for the United States. In order to protect this vital shipping route, the US began building Fort Jefferson in 1846. It was a monumental task. 16 million bricks had to be brought here to built the massive three-story fort, the largest brick masonry structure in the United States.
The absence of fresh water had to be dealt with, too. For this reason, cisterns were built underground to capture rain water that would then get filtered by the soil. Although more than 100 cisterns were built, only six ended up being operational. The rest had giant cracks in them from the structure settling. Food and supplies would also have to be brought here. Life was nothing but back-breaking work for the Union soldiers who lived here. They had to work in a subtropical climate wearing their wool uniforms, and food and water were rationed. It all sounded pretty miserable.
The American Civil War found Fort Jefferson vulnerable. The structure had been erected but none of the 200+ cannons that were supposed to be here had been delivered. The Union had an inkling that Florida would secede, so they sent soldiers to the Tortugas on Jan 5, 1861 to protect it. Florida seceded on Jan 10. The Union soldiers arrived on Jan 18. The very next day, Jan 19, a Florida general and his fleet approached Fort Jefferson and required its surrender. The Florida general was quite surprised to find Union soldiers there, and they told him they only let him approach so he could go back and tell the state of Florida that the next ship to come anywhere close to the fort would be blasted out of the water. The Florida general turned around and left, not knowing that there wasn’t a single cannon at the fort. The first shipment of six cannons would not arrive until Jan 25.
There is ongoing restoration work at the fort, waging a battle with the elements to preserve it the way it was. You won’t see any banisters or guard rails here, so we had to be very careful as we got to the upper floor. The view from there was amazing! We could see the moat surrounding the fort and (50) shades of blue in the water.
We could also see neighboring Bush key, which, depending on currents and winds, is sometimes connected to Garden key.
The sandbar connecting the two was there when we visited and can be seen in the video below.
After our tour, we snorkeled a little in one of the two beaches on this island, pictured below. The swell had picked up and I wasn’t comfortable getting out of the shallow. Visibility was not that great either, so we didn’t get to see any marine life.
Our return to Key West was uneventful. We left the Dry Tortugas at 2:45 and got to Key West around 5:30 pm – just around sunset. Then we had a long 4-hour drive back up to Boynton Beach. It was a very long day, but so worth it! National Park #14 in the books!