Charged with protecting a clustered seven-key archipelago, Dry Tortugas National Park lies in the Gulf of Mexico, seventy nautical miles west of Key West, Florida. Six keys sit halo-like above Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson, majestically alone, remains a mulish testament to 19th-century engineering. With ninety-nine percent of the park underwater, the red-bricked, formerly iron shuttered fort dominates, but shares the shimmering green-blue landscape. Magnificent coral reefs ring Garden Key. Fish flit and slice, colors popping against the pot marked backdrop. Above, winged transients forage in the shells, nesting in the scrub. Ponce de Leon discovered Las Tortugas – The Turtles – in 1513. Since then, man has come and gone. Only their works and nature remain.
Yankee Freedom III, the 150 passenger catamaran departs Key West promptly at 8:00 am. Before boarding a young guide instructs us in the ‘do’s’ and don’ts’ of the 2 1/2 hour trip. I’m listening for two vital pieces of information. What time is breakfast served and what time is lunch served. The rest is self explanatory. Don’t fall overboard (wouldn’t have thought of that), don’t put man made items in the toilet (darn, I was looking forward to that) and when returning to the boat for departure, make sure to check-in (I gave them an alias, just to mess up the manifest). As is my custom, I’m the last person to board and by the time I reach the top deck, all the seats are gone. I casually lean against the rail as if I had no intention of sitting. Sitting is for the weak. Standing for 2 1/2 hours on a broncking boat, now that’s for the strong. It’s also for incredibly slow boarding speds.
About 45 minutes into the trip, I’m still leaning against the rail as if I had brought it on-board with me, when a gentleman approaches and says hello. We introduce ourselves. “Greg.” Smitty. Before I tell you what he then asked me, I think it is only fair to issue a disclaimer. Let’s just say I still can’t believe he asked me what he asked me. I wouldn’t believe you if you told me this story. But it’s true. He looks at me with a serious gaze and said, “Are you visiting all 59 National Parks?” I’m stunned. I look around to see if I recognize someone who knows me and of course see no one. I reply, I am. Stuttering now, how did you know that? “You look like a man on a quest.” These are actual quotes dear reader. What does a man on a quest look like? “You.”
Greg and Nikola (I asked if she was a Russian asset) are from Athens, Georgia. For his last birthday, Nikola gave Greg the gift of traveling to National Parks across the country. We sat together for much of the trip over and virtually all the way back. Two intelligent, passionate people. We got to know each other a bit. I was fortunate to have met them and hope our paths cross again. As for how Greg knew I was visiting all 59 parks – I still don’t have a clue how he did that.
Once docked, you have about five hours to explore the 14 acres that make up Garden Key. I had everything I needed in my backpack – camera, water, fancy bathing trunks, a few snacks and bug spray (which I didn’t use and never use, so I have no idea why it is still in my backpack other than to loan to others). Walking the outside perimeter of the fort allows you to get a sense of scale. On one side is the vast Gulf of Mexico, leading into the Straights of Florida. Colored like the waters of an old map, it brushes the pavers as it has done for 150 years. Turning to the fort, surrounded by Coke-bottle green water, lazily resting, contained and waiting. Your eyes move up along the walls until you see the straw grass top that once held gaze over all ships that passed. You are again awed by the mass. By the labor that brought it to be.
Crossing the moat and entering the fort, you are immediately stuck by the open space of the interior grounds and understand how this was once home to hundreds of men, women and children. 62 men of the Second U.S. Artillery Regiment, under the command of Major Lewis Golding Arnold, called the fort home at the beginning of the Civil War. In 1861, the first prisoner soldiers appeared, sentenced to confinement and hard labor for acts such as mutinous conduct. President Lincoln then substituted imprisonment on the Dry Tortugas, in lieu of execution, for those found guilty of desertion. By 1864 the number of military convicts peaked with 882, guarded by only 583 soldiers and several escaped. Not sure where they went.
On July 24, 1865, four civilians who were convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln arrived. They were held in the fort’s dungeon, which carried the words, “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind” (from Canto III of Dante’s Inferno). In 1867, one of the four, Dr. Mudd, cared for several soldiers during an outbreak of yellow fever and was later pardoned by President Andrew Jackson. In 1902 the property was transferred to the Navy Department, but abandoned in 1906. Two years later the archipelago was set aside as a Federal bird reservation and until 1934, Garden Key and the crumbling fort were merely a rendezvous for fishermen and tourists (Fun Fact: jorts hadn’t been invented yet). During WWI, a wireless station and naval seaplane facility was operational, comprising the last official use of the key. And now you know more than 99.99% of the US population with respect to Fort Jefferson. You’re welcome.
A winding stone staircase brings you to the upper floors of the fort. A worn dirt path leads you along the top of the fort where cannons stand ready in the sun, bracketed by wildflowers. Several of the park’s other keys are clearly visible from this height. Small lumps of sand, golden white in the sun. A few sailboats bob in the offshore current, their sails twinkling as if sending Morse code. In the distance the low hum of a seaplane is heard before she comes into view. Gliding effortlessly, she tilts her wings, circles with grace, skimming the tips of playful waves before soundlessly touching down. I wait for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to descend the short ladder. I’m rewarded with a man in jorts and a woman who obviously wasn’t told it may be warm where you’re headed. I really could have used Bogie at that point. Or more precisely – Bacall.
Over 300 species of birds have been spotted in the Dry Tortugas. At the far tip of Garden Key is a stand of old windswept trees, which from afar appears to be home to all of them. Hundred of birds hover above the trees, still wings gliding on the soft wind. It’s a quiet walk across hard-packed, seaweed specked sand. Just above the narrow beach, sedges and sea grass stand rigid or swaying. The land narrows the closer I get to the end of the key. Small trails lead between the scrub. You can hear waves rolling up on both shores. Along the way, I stop to photograph some of the most beautiful sea shells I’ve ever seen. Large pink conchs. Perfectly shaped and intact whelks. It’s like being in one of those tacky sea shell stores, but without the tacky. Mounds of perfect, unbroken shells. I find a shell with a bluish hue. Paper thin sponges lie next to swirled smooth wood. Orphaned feathers skittle along the sand. When I reach the spot where beach fades back into the sea, the sound of birds competes with the water. Two songs in two distinctly different keys. I sat down on the sand, closed my eyes and selfishly imagined the sweet serenade was just for me.
Walking back to the boat to pick up snorkeling gear, the skies began to change. Dark clouds lounging on the horizon, sat up and in an act of defiant jealousy, gathered to cover the sun. Like most clouds, they failed to think it through. Instead of blocking the sun, they created a radiating display of color. Again the clouds gathered. We will cry they said. We will overshadow the sun and weep. And for a single moment, I felt their warm tears. The sun laughed. Surely you jest, said the sun. I am a God, you are but mere clouds. Wind, said the sun. Chase these hapless clouds away. A breeze moved across the water, giving the unfurled sailboats hope. Helpless to resist the unseen, the dark clouds began to scatter and retreat. The sun boastfully smiled, not realizing that the clouds had made him more beautiful.
I can sum up me and snorkeling in one word. Not good. I’m just not an under the water guy. I think it stems back to my childhood. We didn’t have a pool. We never went to the beach. I vaguely remember driving past a lake and wondering what that blue liquid was. So there’s that. When I was finally introduced to water, it was traumatic. Thrown off the diving board as a 9th grader. I played baseball, basketball and football (I was a stud), but suddenly I was the kid in the shallow end. It was humiliating, but I understand it was also wildly entertaining. Then there was the Hawaiian snorkeling incident. They gave us small bags of food to slowly feed and attract fish. As soon as I entered the water I was attacked by thousands of lidless fish, pecking at me with their slippery little fish lips. One even slapped me across the face with his tail and gave me the stink eye. Unbeknownst to be, the bag of food in my pocket had ruptured, turning me into an underwater blob of feeding frenzy. Naturally, my snorkel went underwater and naturally I kept breathing. Naturally everyone around me thought this was the highlight of the day. As for me, I was scarred. I’m fragile.
“What size,” the young lady in the snorkeling booth asks. Eleven. Twelve on a good day. She smiles, hoping I don’t say another word. But I can’t help myself. You know what they say about men with big feet? “No.” A look of horror crosses her face and then I see a distinct look that says, ‘Maybe he will have stroke and go away.’ They wear big socks. She smiles and memorizes my face for the next episode of Cops, before handing my my gear. I tell myself I’m an idiot and hike over to the old ravaged docks to snorkel among the remaining wooden pilings.
The water is clear and I venture out after repeatedly tripping over my fins. Snorkel in place, let’s go. Beautiful fish dart into coral, seemingly at ease moving backward. In my head I’m singing ‘Under the Sea’. Fish with colorful vests stare at me and then smoothly move along. It’s like a Crayola commercial under here. Suddenly several fish that apparently weren’t present when color was passed out, decide to swim along side. One fish, two fish, blowfish, bluefish. I’m relaxed. I’m breathing normally. Ha, ha, no food in my pocket today. A school of deeply marked fish perform what has to have been a choreographed ballet. Then it happens (cue theme from Jaws). As soon as I get near the pilings I see the outline of a large fish. By large I mean roughly the size of me. Breath… breath… breath. I calmly turn around and head for shore. Except I am swimming against the current and staying in place. The large fish gets within about five feet of me and then with a single silent swish, turns and swims away. On the boat I was told that it was a nurse shark. “They rarely attack humans.” And thus ends my snorkeling career.