If you head west by boat from Key West for about two hours, you'll see Fort
Jefferson (pictured above) rising out of the water, and looking for all the
world like it really just shouldn't be there. Nevertheless, it is; the only
structure other than a few lighthouses to be found in the Dry Tortugas. The
Tortugas are a collection of seven islands, some of which are really just
glorified sandbars. There is no fresh water to be found on the islands,
hence the moniker 'dry', and they have a permanent human population of 0.
The waters are beautifully clear however: The pictures of the conch on the
background and the stingray here (look carefully) were both taken looking
down into the water from the fort's moat wall.
The Dry Tortugas are the least visited national park in the United States.
Partially because they can only be reached by boat or seaplane from Key West,
and partially because they are not particularly hospitable. Fort Jefferson
takes up about 90% of the key it is located on, leaving just enough room for
a small campground and a boat dock. Most of the other keys are restricted as
wildlife refuges or bird breeding grounds.
Speaking of the campground, this was our tent site. Melanie, Lisa and Mike are
relaxing between snorkelling trips. Reef surrounds three sides of the island and
the moat wall has become a coral reef of sorts as well, harboring a variety of
tropical fish. We also saw nurse sharks, ghost crabs (by the thousands), and
an enormous spotted eagle ray.
The fort was originally intended as part of a strategic line of forts which would
stretch down the east coast of the US and into the Gulf of Mexico. However, by
the time it was finished it was obsolete and it was used then as a prison. Its
most famous prisoner was Dr. Mudd, the man who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth
after he shot President Lincoln. For scale purposes, that's Melanie in the
foreground near the palm tree and there are a couple people on top the fort wall
Now we're on the fort wall too. From up here you can see miles and miles of...
well, nothing really except water and a couple of the other Tortugas. This
lighthouse is still in use although the cannon is not. This fort, which would
have been nearly impregnable, never actually saw battle. Besides its position
in the middle of the ocean and the difficult approach by sea, the fort is
surrounded by a moat and moat wall. The moat wall, as much as providing defense
also prevents the waves from crashing directly into the fort.
This picture was taken inside the fort. The arched building on the left was a
battery, to be used for storing ammunition originally. The fort is in various
stages of decay, several sections of the wall have collapsed and one generally
has to be pretty careful while exploring it. Despite the fact that it was late
October, it was well into the 90s(F) the first day we were on the island.
Sleeping would have been nearly impossible except that a breeze sprung up
around midnight and made the weather bearable.
This is the view out from the top of the fort. The two keys in the distance are
the only accessible ones from Garden Key (the key the fort is on). The more
distant island is Bird Key which is restricted. We swam over to the nearer island
on the second day. There is a considerable current between the two islands, and
a few jellyfish to contend with, but with swim fins it's not a bad swim. Once
you're there, there isn't much to see. More ghost crabs, more fish, and more
deserted island. There's something to be said for knowing you're the only
people on an island though.
Here Melanie poses inside the fort walls. The small mound beside her is actually
the beginnings of a stalagmite, formed by water dripping off the top of the arch.
There are only about 10 campsites on the island, so after mid-afternoon when the
day-trippers left there were perhaps 10 people on the island. One of whom was
the exceedingly knowledgeable ranger who lived in a section of the fort. The
rangers use a sophisticated rain-water collection system for fresh water. There
are no phones per se on the island, though there is a satellite-link phone which
can be used for a mere $15 per minute in case of emergency.
Here are Lisa and Mike on the moat wall as seen from inside the fort. The moat
itself is accessible by a few small openings in the wall making it a safe haven
for small fish. Lisa and Mike spent two nights on the island, so this is as
close to them as we could get by the third day. Actually - it wasn't that bad,
they carried enough water with them to turn the place into the Wet Tortugas by
the time we left. Our fellow campers were an interesting mix of world travellers,
featuring one man who had spent several weeks on the island, a couple from France
who forgot their can-opener (sorry - that's all we really know about them), and
a brief visit from a collection of rowdy Brits who decided bathing suits were
optional. (Not that there was really anyone around to care).