Dry Tortugas National Park lies 70 miles west of Key West, and is one of the more remote parks to get to, so of course we decided to try to go despite zero preplanning. There are three ways to get to the park: seaplane, private boat, or the one ferry tour that goes out daily. Which fills up pretty quickly at certain times of year. And was fully booked each of the days we were visiting. As I’ve said, it’s wonderful to have the freedom to go wherever on no real fixed schedule and just roll with what comes up and seems fun, but occasionally a little more of a set schedule would come in handy such as now.
Anyway, we decided to try our hand at just showing up early and seeing if a standby spot opened up, so that is just what we did. Saturday morning at 6am we arrived and were the first people in line when the office opened and put our names on the list, as sometimes people don’t show up or they find they can add on. This was not our day. But that’s okay because we spent it instead doing all kinds of fun things in Key West. But were we optimistic and tried the same strategy the next day, again first in line and with coffee in hand, and like magic the guy who opened that morning was pretty sure he could get us on. And he sure did!
We got on the ferry along with 150 or so of our closest new friends, I drugged myself with dramamine, and had some breakfast onboard. Man, and I glad I took that stuff because it was choppy and I slept through the worst of it- at one point semi-awake I discovered that about 1/3 of the boat was either similarly drugged and passed out, looking sick, or being sick. A good time to be out of it.
By the time we arrived around 2 1/2 hours later, I was more alert, downed some ginger ale as a precaution (my boat history is… not stellar), and stepped outside and was awed immediately by the vibrant blue of the water and the gorgeous view of the island.
Dry Tortugas was originally a strategic fort location since it lies at the end of a reef that runs all the way from the Keys to this island (Garden Key), so any ship would have had to come all the way out past here to go between the Gulf coast from the Florida Atlantic coast. Fort Jefferson was built here mid-1800s and was never actually finished, but served as a military outpost, refueling station, and remote prision over the years it was active. On our tour we learned that some of its notable moments include being the departure point for the Maine before it headed to its end in Cuba and to start the Spanish American War, and was the site of a yellow fever epidemic, during which its most famous inmate, Dr. Samuel Mudd who was imprisoned for his involvement in the Lincoln assassination, treated patients there and in doing so was able to lessen his sentence for saving so many lives.
The fort overlooks the beautiful sea, and walking the ramparts gave wonderful views of the shore, moat, pilings, and some of the bird life the islands are known for. We spotted a frigate bird, which according to the guide was cool and they nest one one of the smaller adjacent island areas.
AFter the tour we had lunch by the campsite area and wished we had known you didn’t need to reserve a site to camp there, because we totally would have had we known. Then we snorkled around by the pilings and along the fort wall and saw all kinds of colorful coral, fish, and other cool things I don’t know enough about to name. The water was a little cool but nice, and clear and pretty still where we were. So glas we got to come here and do this because the reef sees much less traffic than most in the area and thus was pretty healthy and active. Sadly no tortugas. Apparently there used to be so many turtles here that they named the island that, and ate them all the time, even turning some on their backs in the boats and keeping them alive by basting them with sea water until they needed to eat again (this makes me sad but is ingenious for fresh meat at sea). Since there is no natural source of fresh water, the name was changed to Dry Tortugas.
I wish we’d had longer on the island, but after snorkeling it was time to head back to the boat where I drugged myself again but was less sleepy this time and managed to stay awake and even read some. Maybe I need to take this stuff for every car trip because I can never read on anything moving, so who knows. I totally recommend to anyone who has the chance to go here however you can! Such a cool place and by nature of it’s location never overrun with people. It felt that much more special thanks to this, and thanks to our dumb luck getting there,