Ex­plor­ing Flor­ida's last piece of wilder­ness

Passage Maker - - Contents - Kim Kal­isik

Cruis­ing the Dry Tortugas

In a Key West ma­rina aboard Blue Turtle, our 40-foot DeFever Pas­sagemaker, thoughts race through my mind while ly­ing in bed. Do we have enough wa­ter on board? Did we pro­vi­sion enough ex­tra food and sup­plies in case of bad weather? Did we re­ally fix our gen­er­a­tor? Have I down­loaded all the recipes I’ll need for the trip? Did I turn on my email au­tore­spon­der? In just a few hours we will be cut off from the rest of the world, and that feel­ing is ex­hil­a­rat­ing. And a lit­tle scary. Say­ing that the Dry Tortugas is off the beaten path is an un­der­state­ment. There are no cell tow­ers, Wi-Fi, or ca­ble TV, fuel, restau­rants, shops, or lodg­ing (other than a prim­i­tive camp­ground). As the name sug­gests, there is also no fresh wa­ter. You must bring ev­ery­thing you will need to sus­tain your­self and your crew for the du­ra­tion of the trip.

This re­mote group of bar­ren is­lands are rich in his­tory, rel­a­tively un­touched by civ­i­liza­tion and com­mer­cial­ism, and of­fer the best of ev­ery­thing in the trop­ics: snor­kel­ing, div­ing, fish­ing, bird­watch­ing, and sun­sets. It’s a na­ture lover’s par­adise and a his­tory buff ’s dream. Sto­ries of hur­ri­canes, ship­wrecks, buried trea­sure, and pi­rates make the place feel like it’s right out of Robin­son Cru­soe or Trea­sure Is­land.


Made up of seven small is­lands, the Dry Tortugas are lo­cated 70 miles west of Key West and 90 miles north of Cuba at the north­west en­trance to the Flor­ida Straits. Its co­ral reefs, abun­dant with marine life, are the end of the Flor­ida Reef sys­tem, the third largest reef in the world. Stretch­ing 221 miles along the state’s south­east coast from Key Bis­cayne, these reefs end within a few miles of the Gulf Stream where the Gulf of Mex­ico, At­lantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea col­lide.

The small is­lands, made up of coarse sand, vines, and a few palms, serve as a pre­serve and breed­ing ground for 299 species of birds. The sur­round­ing shoals and wa­ters make up Dry Tortugas Na­tional Park. With just over 70,000 vis­its in 2016, it is one of the least-vis­ited parks in the United States Na­tional Park Ser­vice. One ma­jor rea­son for this is you can only get to it by ferry, sea­plane, or pri­vate boat. When men­tion­ing our plans to cruise there, we were of­ten greeted with blank stares, jeal­ousy, or con­cerns about our wel­fare.

Adding to its in­trigue, the Dry Tortugas has served as a mil­i­tary out­post, a prison, a quar­an­tine sta­tion, coal­ing sta­tion for war­ships, and a pi­rate hide­away. In order to con­trol the nav­i­ga­tion on the Gulf of Mex­ico, the U.S. con­structed a fort on Gar­den Key. This 19th-cen­tury coastal fortress, named Fort Jef­fer­son, is the largest brick ma­sonry struc­ture in the Amer­i­cas and is com­posed of more than 16 mil­lion bricks. The fort and light­house on an ad­ja­cent is­land are the only things that break the hori­zon. Af­ter an 18-hour day on the Gulf of Mex­ico, it can be a wel­com­ing sight.


The best way to ex­plore the Dry Tortugas is by pri­vate ves­sel. From small sail­boats and sport­fish­ing boats to trawlers and mo­to­ry­achts, boats of all makes, mod­els, and sizes visit the Tortugas. Even smaller cen­ter-con­sole boats come out to fish dur­ing the day and camp on Gar­den Key at night. It seems most folks who cruise there stay only a few days, which is most likely due to the weather con­di­tions and their boat’s ca­pac­ity for wa­ter and fuel. Larger trawlers, mo­to­ry­achts, and other large ves­sels seem to be bet­ter equipped for an ex­tended stay for these rea­sons.

Our trip to the Dry Tortugas aboard Blue Turtle be­gan in early June 2017 from our home port of Fort My­ers Beach, Flor­ida. My hus­band Randy, 13-year-old son Corey, and I have made this trip four years in a row. In past years, we steamed the 120 miles di­rectly to the Dry Tortugas, tak­ing us ap­prox­i­mately 18 hours at roughly seven knots. This year, we headed there via a few an­chor­ages in the Flor­ida Keys and then on to Key West. Key West’s col­or­ful, noisy, and lively at­mos­phere al­ways pro­vides a stark con­trast to the

iso­lated and re­mote world of the Dry Tortugas. De­part­ing from or ar­riv­ing in Key West af­ter time spent in the Tortugas can of­ten leave you feel­ing a bit shell-shocked at first. How­ever, both des­ti­na­tions can be a wel­com­ing sight, de­pend­ing on which di­rec­tion you are trav­el­ing.

If you snorkel, dive, or spearfish, the best time to visit the Dry Tortugas is in the sum­mer. Not only is the wa­ter warmer, but the weather pat­terns are more pre­dictable, giv­ing you win­dows for smoother seas and bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity. When it’s calm, it’s like swim­ming in a gi­ant open-wa­ter aquar­ium ac­com­pa­nied by huge schools of bait­fish, stingrays, gi­ant bar­racuda, go­liath groupers, and 200-pound tarpon.

While the win­ter months pro­vide more com­fort­able tem­per­a­tures, which are great for tour­ing the fort, they can also bring more cold fronts with higher winds and seas. Bird­watch­ing ap­pears to be bet­ter in the win­ter months since mi­gra­tion in­creases sub­stan­tially. The great­est con­cen­tra­tion of birds can be seen in the Tortugas dur­ing cold fronts when high winds ground the great­est num­ber of mi­gra­tory birds.

This year our plan was to stay in the Dry Tortugas for 11 days. Of course, one must al­ways be flex­i­ble when trav­el­ing by boat. Un­for­tu­nately, in early June, the sum­mer weather pat­tern hadn’t quite de­vel­oped and we had some weather sys­tems to con­tend with. Since our weather was look­ing grim out of Key West, we de­cided to lay up at the Mar­quesa Keys, a com­mon spot for an­chor­ing on the way to the Dry Tortugas.

Mar­quesa Keys are a small chain of man­grove is­lands lo­cated ap­prox­i­mately 25 miles west of Key West. A la­goon in the cen­ter, thought to be cre­ated by a me­teor strike, gives the Mar­quesa Keys the honor of be­ing the only atoll in the At­lantic Ocean. With great vis­i­bil­ity, swift cur­rents, and large fish, these keys are con­sid­ered to be a sport­fish­ing mecca. The Mar­quesa Keys and Re­becca Shoals both of­fer con­sid­er­able pro­tec­tion against rough wa­ters when cruis­ing to or from the Dry Tortugas.


Af­ter an­chor­ing for the night at Mar­quesa Keys, it was time to make the half-day trip to the Dry Tortugas where we had plans to ren­dezvous with some friends from Fort My­ers Beach. Once we ar­rived at Gar­den Key, we nav­i­gated into the fish­bowl-like an­chor­age near the fort, with wa­ter 20 to 30 feet deep, and dropped our an­chor onto a coarse sandy bot­tom.

Shortly af­ter an­chor­ing, we spot­ted our friends’ 42-foot Leop­ard cata­ma­ran, Sukha, glid­ing across the clear, aqua-col­ored wa­ter in the an­chor­age. As they passed us to find an an­chor­ing spot, our friend Chris yelled to us, “I can see why you guys love it here so much.” This be­ing our fourth trip, we can hon­estly say that we’d visit the Dry Tortugas ev­ery year if we could.

Once we launched the dinghy, we went ashore to fill out the boater’s per­mit, pay the park fee, and check the lat­est weather up­date, which is a printed re­port posted daily at the main dock house. From there we could de­ter­mine the best pos­si­ble days to get out on the reefs and when it would be bet­ter to stay at Gar­den Key and ex­plore the fort.


Our weather fore­cast for the week was not look­ing great, so we de­cided our best shot for get­ting out on the wa­ter would be the next day. Later that evening, over din­ner and drinks with Sukha and crew, we hashed out a plan to cruise over to Lit­tle Africa near Log­ger­head Key in the morn­ing aboard the cata­ma­ran.

Log­ger­head Key, lo­cated three miles from Gar­den Key, is the largest is­land in the Dry Tortugas. Named for the abun­dance of log­ger­head sea tur­tles there, this is­land is also the lo­ca­tion of a 19th-cen­tury light­house used to warn mariners off the shal­low reef. It has also been home to a cut­ting-edge marine re­search lab­o­ra­tory, a site of ship­wrecks, and com­mon land­ing spot for Cuban refugees. Just off the north­west side lies Lit­tle Africa, a beau­ti­ful shal­low-wa­ter reef full of marine life. With the pro­tec­tion from the south­east winds that morn­ing, we snorkeled in flat-calm wa­ter and had amaz­ing vis­i­bil­ity as we saw a beau­ti­ful reef teem­ing with var­i­ous species of trop­i­cal fish, large col­or­ful co­ral heads, and gi­ant bar­racuda and tarpon.

Af­ter snor­kel­ing Lit­tle Africa, we de­cided to check out the Brick Wreck, which is an­other shal­low-wa­ter reef near the Gar­den Key an­chor­age. The Brick Wreck, also known as Bird Key Wreck, is lo­cated in four to six feet of wa­ter and is thought to be a 126-foot steamer that was driven into the shal­low wa­ter on Bird Key Bank. It car­ried a cargo of two types of bricks: yel­low bricks used to build ma­jor parts of the fort and re­frac­tory bricks used to line the ship’s fire­box. Vis­i­bil­ity at this wreck isn’t typ­i­cally as great as other reefs in the park; how­ever, it is usu­ally loaded with fish. You know you’ve found the wreck when you see the six-foot, four-blade wrought iron pro­pel­ler still in­tact on the sandy bot­tom.


With winds fore­casted at 15 to 20 knots and seas five to seven feet by mid­week, Sukha and crew de­cided to head to Key West where they would meet up with the rest of their crew mem­bers. This new weather fore­cast made it clear that our next few days would

be spent ex­plor­ing Gar­den Key and Fort Jef­fer­son.

At about 41 acres in size, Gar­den Key is the se­cond largest is­land in the Dry Tortugas. Aside from be­ing the lo­ca­tion of Fort Jef­fer­son, it is also home to park head­quar­ters, a vis­i­tor cen­ter, camp­grounds, and ex­cel­lent snor­kel­ing ar­eas. There are plenty of things to do on Gar­den Key and within the an­chor­age area, in­clud­ing vis­it­ing the beaches, kayak­ing, fish­ing, snor­kel­ing, wan­der­ing through Fort Jef­fer­son and around the perime­ter along­side the moat. If you look up while ex­plor­ing Gar­den Key, you’ll spot mag­nif­i­cent frigate­birds glid­ing across the sky like ptero­dactyls and hear thou­sands of mi­gra­tory seabirds like the sooty tern, brown noddy, and masked booby at nearby Bush Key.

Spend­ing a full day at an­chor near Gar­den Key will in­ti­mately ac­quaint you with the ferry and sea­plane sched­ule. Quiet morn­ings be­come in­ter­rupted by sea­planes fly­ing over­head and scores of peo­ple fil­ing off the ferry. The place gets more lively as the day pro­gresses, but you can count on the still­ness of the early morn­ings and late evenings af­ter the ferry leaves.

Even with the ferry there, Fort Jef­fer­son re­ally doesn’t seem that crowded. Its mas­sive six-sided struc­ture has three lev­els, with a huge 8-acre pa­rade ground in­side. It was the largest and most so­phis­ti­cated of the Third Sys­tem coastal forts that be­gan to be built fol­low­ing the War of 1812. Though it was never com­pleted, Fort Jef­fer­son served many pur­poses through the years. Dur­ing the Civil War, it re­mained in Union hands and was used in their cam­paign to block­ade Confederate ship­ping. It also served as a mil­i­tary prison mainly for Union de­sert­ers but also for the fa­mous civil­ian pris­oner, Dr. Sa­muel Mudd, who was ar­rested for con­spir­acy in the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Lin­coln. Later aban­doned by the Army, it was used as a quar­an­tine sta­tion for the Marine Hos­pi­tal Ser­vice, as well as a coal­ing sta­tion for war­ships.

There’s plenty to ex­plore within Fort Jef­fer­son, and you can spend an en­tire day wan­der­ing the brick arch­ways, learn­ing about the his­tory and imag­in­ing what life there would have been like while it was be­ing built. It seems that ev­ery year we visit, we dis­cover some­thing new about Fort Jef­fer­son. This year, we were sur­prised that we hadn’t pre­vi­ously no­ticed the hot­shot fur­nace,

This Photo: Corey, Randy, and So­phie stop to pose on the mote wall while tour­ing the perime­ter of the fort. Top: Crys­tal clear wa­ter and beau­ti­ful reefs sur­round the Dry Tortugas Light on Log­ger­head Key. Op­po­site: Sea­planes full of tourists take off and land all day long in Gar­den Key. Side­bar: Large schools of reef fish swim in and around wreck­age. a large brick struc­ture used to heat can­non­balls that were fired at wooden ships in hopes of set­ting them on fire.

A hike up to the top level of the fort pro­vides a breath­tak­ing panorama of the fort’s pa­rade ground, Gar­den Key, ad­ja­cent Bush Key, and Log­ger­head Key in the dis­tance. Sur­rounded by vary­ing shades of aqua wa­ter, you lit­er­ally feel like you’re in a re­mote par­adise. As you walk along the top perime­ter, you may want to watch your step as there are no handrails. Upon ask­ing a park ranger if any­one had ever fallen from the top, we were told that

there had been four falls but no deaths.

Snor­kel­ing around the fort and Gar­den Key is equally amaz­ing as Lit­tle Africa. If you fol­low the moat wall you will see beau­ti­ful corals and sea fans at­tached to the bricks, col­or­ful par­rot­fish, bar­racuda, and huge pods of bait­fish and the gi­ant tarpon that feed on them. The aban­doned coal docks lo­cated on the north and south sides of the is­land also re­veal large schools of reef fish and snap­per, crabs tucked into tight spots, and go­liath grouper as large as your dinghy.


Af­ter three days at the an­chor­age, we fi­nally got a break in our weather to get out on the wa­ter and hit some dive spots. Most of the reefs suit­able for div­ing within the park’s bound­aries are marked with moor­ing balls. This not only makes them eas­ier to find but also eas­ier to visit since you don’t have to an­chor. We de­cided first to visit a group of three dive sites that are near each other: Off Ramp, Davis Rock, and Texas Rock. We’d dived at all these spots in past years and all are ex­cel­lent. We de­cided to skip Off Ramp, a nice dive of 20 to 25 feet, and opt for the other two this year.

Up first was Davis Rock. With depths of 20 to 45 feet, it of­fers much to see—large cone-shape co­ral heads jut­ting out from the bot­tom, a go­liath grouper, and a cou­ple of small reef sharks. Af­ter Davis Rock, we moved to Texas Rock, which is one of the deeper dives in the Dry Tortugas and sits in about 60 feet of wa­ter. There are huge co­ral heads, large crevices, and swim-throughs teem­ing with schools of grunts, yel­low­tail snap­per, col­or­ful tangs, and par­rot­fish. We spot­ted the oc­ca­sional queen and grey an­gelfish, a spot­ted eel and por­cu­pine­fish.

In con­trast to any of the reefs in the Flor­ida Keys, where you have to share one reef with many tour boats and pri­vate ves­sels, most the time in the Dry Tortugas you are the only boat there and the only peo­ple in the wa­ter. It’s the best of ev­ery­thing: the great­est vis­i­bil­ity and most pris­tine reefs—and you have it all to your­self.

Af­ter our two dives, we headed to the Tortugas Bank so the guys could try some spearfish­ing. The Tortugas Bank is lo­cated about 11 miles from Gar­den Key and is the clos­est spot to there where you can spearfish since it lies out­side of the park bound­aries. The reef is marked by sev­eral moor­ing balls and we tied up to one named “Awe­some.” As the name sug­gests, this dive turned out to be just that. Randy sur­faced with a nice 23inch hog­fish and Corey with a 25-inch red grouper. This was the per­fect way to end an amaz­ing day on the wa­ter in par­adise.


While this year’s trip to the Tortugas was plagued by un­pre­dictable weather and sev­eral days of high winds, we still had an amaz­ing time. Af­ter eight days in the Tortugas, we pulled an­chor and headed once again to the Mar­que­sas to take refuge from wind and high seas be­fore re­turn­ing the next day to Key West.

Once we were in range of cell­phone ser­vice, ra­dio chat­ter, and tour boats zigzag­ging through the main chan­nel of Key West, we were al­ready miss­ing the calm and quiet of the Dry Tortugas. There, time al­most stands still—and things that seem so im­por­tant back home, in civ­i­liza­tion, don’t even reg­is­ter among the salt air and wildlife you ob­serve while watch­ing the sun melt into the Gulf of Mex­ico.


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