PERUSE ANY GUIDEBOOK THAT chronicles the top attractions in the Florida Keys and it’s a guarantee that the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson will make an appearance near the top of the list of “must-see” sites. A mere 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dry Tortugas is one of the most spectacular (in my majorly biased opinion) national parks of the 59 that beautify our great nation. So named because Juan Ponce de León apparently caught 160 sea turtles there in 1513, the Dry Tortugas National Park technically comprises the seven Dry Tortugas islands as well as Fort Jefferson — a gargantuan unfinished hexagonal fortress built of red brick and largely abandoned (if you discount the roughly 60,000 annual visitors who come to learn about the fort’s history and snorkel the vibrant reefs around her perimeter). It may not be easy to get all the way out there, but the voyage is worth it for both the fascinating (and somewhat macabre) history of the fort and the access to one of the best-preserved reef ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere.
There are a few ways to get to the Dry Tortugas National Park and its jewel-like chain of islands. Which way is right for you depends entirely on your tolerance for being close to other people, how long you’re willing to wait to get to your destination, how comfortable you are on choppy seas, how interested you are in spotting sharks from the sky and how much money you deem to be a ridiculous sum to pay in order to travel there.
The cheapest of options — not including one very exhausting swim — is to buy a ticket for a ride on the Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran that ferries sunblock-nosed visitors back and forth daily between Key West and Fort Jefferson, the Civil War-era island fortress located inside the park. The ferry ride is fast, relatively speaking: a little over two hours if the seas are calm, during which an onboard naturalist points out areas of interest as they zoom by.
The boat boasts a large tiered bow, food, drinks, freshwater rinses for your post-swim trip home, indoor air-conditioned seating and plenty of outdoor observation deck space for taking selfies against a backdrop of turquoise water. Included with the purchase price of one $180 adult ticket (children ride for $125) are breakfast and lunch and a voluntary guided tour of the fort and its riveting history, as well as complimentary snorkeling equipment to use exploring the truly spectacular reef structure surrounding the fort’s main island.
In addition to its pristine underwater vistas, the Dry Tortugas also offer postcard-perfect white sand beaches and views that look like B-roll footage from the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. People who travel to the Keys expecting miles of powdery beach snuggled up against a crystalline sea are often disappointed to find that our beaches are decidedly more rustic than those belonging to our Caribbean neighbors.
But on a good weather day — which is often, since the Dry Tortugas’ lack of land mass makes them unable to generate thunderstorms — the beauty of the Dry Tortugas is ineffable, a shimmering gradient of blues and greens layered on top of superfine, snow-white sand, stretching toward a horizon line dotted with piratey-looking ship silhouettes, the kind of quintessentially tropical setting that makes for excellent computer screen wallpaper.
The islands also act as a crucial layover for migratory birds, making them an ornithologist’s perfect tropical vacation spot. Eight of the almost 300 species that stopover at the fort choose to nest within the island’s protected borders, including birder favorites like the roseate tern, magnificent frigate, masked booby, sooty tern and brown noddy, the last four of which nest nowhere else in the United States.
And then, of course, there’s the name: gifted by famed Fountain of Youth-seeker Ponce de León himself, who named the islands after their combined lack of fresh water and overabundance of tasty sea turtles. History buffs will love traipsing around the circa-1875 old brick fort, the largest all-masonry fortress in the United States, and learning about its engrossing, and sometimes bizarre, history.
The Yankee Freedom III caps its passenger load at 175 — cozy to some, intolerable to others. The latter group will want to shell out the extra cash to book a seat on one of Key West Seaplane Adventures’ small seaplanes, which fly customers across the ocean at an altitude low enough for dazzling sightseeing. Flights are limited to under a dozen passengers, while the ride itself includes a guided audio tour of the jaw-dropping spectacle below … and it’s a freaking spectacle, all right: shipwrecks, shifting sand dunes, sharks and turtles are all easily spotted, thanks to each passenger’s having a window seat.
All in all, there’s something very genteel about the whole experience. You board at the private airplane section of the airport (and if that’s not something that’s unusual to you, may I ask if you are looking to adopt a 32-year-old writer?) after which you are ferried onto your seaplane, ice water in hand, and given a set of cool-looking headphones through which your guided tour plays. Once airborne, with noses pressed against your private window, a scene befitting National Geographic floats peacefully beneath you.
You’ll marvel at just how many kinds of blue there are before Garden Key — the name of the specific island on which Fort Jefferson sits — comes into view, a massive, red-brick hexagon plunked in the middle of what appears to be an endless, uninhabited sea. The whole flight lasts about 40 minutes, and planes are able to land at times both before and after the ferry, meaning that passengers often find themselves strolling and sunbathing across what feels like their own private island, its reef and beaches mercifully quiet and deserted.
The trip provides free soft drinks and snorkel gear, but the upgrade in cost compared to a ferry ticket (a whopping $600 for a full eight-hour day, or $342 for four hours, both including travel time) can be off-putting to some, while to others, having a picturesque desert island to themselves for a few hours is practically priceless. You can close your eyes, block out the other 11 or so passengers, and picture yourself back in the time of good ol’ Ponce de León, pulling in turtles and soaking up the sun before setting out to find the Fountain of Youth and accidentally ramming into Cuba.
For Kelly Clark, cultural resources specialist for the Dry Tortugas National Park, it’s not all fun, games and masked booby sightings. Since 2007, Clark has been tasked with maintaining the “built” environment of the park, including the fort, lighthouses and underwater archeological sites. Unsurprisingly, old, crumbling ruins tend to want to crumble more, and it’s Clark who assesses the conditions of each structure, documents its state and plans future preservation projects. She is effusive when describing why the park is a must-see for anyone in the area.
“It’s truly a gem of the Park Service,” she says, noting that, while it takes commitment to reach the park, the rewards are well worth the journey. Protecting such an unspoiled paradise takes constant vigilance, which is why the entire chain of islands is classified as a “pack in, pack out” site, meaning all visitors (including those who choose to camp out for the night on Garden Key) must provide their own resources when they arrive, and then take those resources and any trash they create back with them when they leave. Though fishing is allowed in 52% of the park’s 47,125 acres (most of which are underwater), the park strictly forbids lobstering and spearfishing, and anchoring sites are diligently monitored to insure the integrity of the seafloor remains uncompromised.
It’s not just the sheer wonder its natural beauty inspires that makes the park, and Fort Jefferson in particular, so special to the estimated 63,000 visitors who visit annually. The island boasts a rich, storied history, once having served as a home to naval officers and their families, lighthouse keepers, prisoners, slaves, and one particularly famous doctor. Fans of American history flock to the island to witness in person Fort Jefferson’s magnificence. Otherwise known as the “Gibraltar of the Gulf,” the 16 million brick, three-tiered fortress, in its heyday, housed some of the most advanced military weapons available. Other visitors enjoy sitting on a beach knowing that it was previously occupied by pirates in the 1600s and 1700s, who took advantage of the island’s prime position in the Gulf to attack merchant ships passing by.
If you were to brush off your old history books they might mention that, during the Civil War, Key West remained a Union stronghold despite its decidedly Southern location. Its own fortress, Fort Zachary, paired with the Dry Tortugas’ Fort Jefferson, were together tasked with protecting the Florida Straights and Gulf of Mexico from any Confederate boats who might otherwise attempt to come to shore to re-supply. In addition, Fort Jefferson was used to house Union deserters banished to military prison. The actual construction of the fort, begun in 1846, continued over the next 30 years, during which it hosted one particularly infamous prisoner by the name of Dr. Samuel Mudd.
When John Wilkes Booth, the American stage actor responsible for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, fled the theater in which he’d committed the crime, he broke his leg, reportedly when a horse fell on him (karma can indeed be quite the saucy wench). He arrived at the doorstep of Dr. Mudd, a pro-slavery tobacco farmer who set and bandaged Booth’s broken leg, then allowed him to hide out in an upstairs bedroom. After he’d had a nice, recuperating rest, Booth scampered the following morning, after which Mudd waited a full 24 hours before notifying the police of the event. It didn’t look good for Dr. Mudd.
Later, having been convicted in the conspiracy of President Lincoln’s assassination, Mudd arrived at the prison of Fort Jefferson as a pariah. He spent two years as an inmate inside the fort’s impenetrable, badly ventilated walls. When a particularly contagious spat of yellow fever swept through the prison, killing both the prison’s resident doctor and a large percentage of inmates, Mudd stepped in to fill the role of the prison’s physician. He was able to successfully stave off the continued spread of the disease, a feat that won him the pardon of President Johnson, after surviving prisoners wrote to the President and described Mudd’s brave service during the epidemic. Pardon granted, Mudd was allowed to leave the prison in 1869 and return home to Maryland.
By 1874 the fort had become too expensive to maintain as a military stronghold, and was abandoned by the Army to be used instead as a coaling station for warships. One final, famous visitor, the USS Maine, departed from Fort Jefferson to begin its fateful mission to Cuba, after which the fort began a slow decline into what would have been ruin, had it not received classification as a National Monument by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though briefly closed during the federal government’s 1995-1996 shutdown, residents of Key West were able to pull together the funding to keep the property open to visitors.
Since then, visitors have arrived in droves by boat and plane to wind their way through the fort, where tour guides delight in pointing out Mudd’s old prison cell. Some come simply to enjoy the immaculate ecosystem of the property, ensured by its establishment and continued protection as a national park in 1992.
“As visitors begin to hear about the history and comprehend the role that the fort and the geography of the Dry Tortugas played in the larger theme of maritime and military history, it becomes hard to under-emphasize why it is so special,” says Clark. “Words do not do these resources justice, and it’s by far one of the most photogenic places one could visit,” she says. “Not to mention,” she adds wisely, “You can’t shovel sunshine.” ¦