Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dry Tortugas

Camping at Dry Tortugas National Park definitely goes on our “Top 10 List” of adventures this year. It’s the most remote national park, located 70 miles west of Key West on Garden Key. Back in the 1840’s, the US decided to build a state of the art fortress called Fort Jefferson, and it would serve as the watchdog of the area for ships going to and from the Mississippi River. They built it from brick, and I imagine slaves did most of the hard labor. It’s a large, hexagon-shaped structure that’s 3 stories high, and you can spot it from miles away.

Most people sign up for the day trip, which includes a 2 ½ hour boat ride out, breakfast, lunch, 4 hours to explore the site, and then of course the return trip. We found out that camping is available, so we chose to spend the night! Robby and Will, our Boy Scouts, planned the whole trip, including meals, water, tents, snorkel gear, etc. We headed for the boat at 6am with loads of gear, and boarded the Yankee Freedom II, a beautiful catamaran.
On the boat, we read books, explored the upper and lower decks, played Sudoku, talked with other tourists, and studied the fish identification guides. We heard the snorkeling off Dry Tortugas is like swimming in an aquarium.

Ponce de Leon named the key back in the 1500’s when he and his crew discovered turtles everywhere, and hauled them onboard for food and oil. “Turtles” translate to Las Tortugas. “Dry” was later added to the name because the key has no fresh water.

We arrived and set up camp, with the Besch boys taking charge. I stepped back and took pictures while they erected 3 tents. We couldn’t wait to explore. The water color changed from turquoise to teal to navy blue as we looked out to sea. Incredible! The moat surrounding Ft. Jefferson was built to defend against enemies and also against hurricanes. A low exterior wall surrounds the moat, and we decided to start by walking the full perimeter on the wall. Sea life thrives on both sides of the wall, and we saw urchins, colorful fish, small barracuda, sea cucumbers, upside-down jellyfish, and hermit crabs. On the outside of the wall, coral grows well, which brings multitudes of fish and other life with it.

The imposing fort takes up the entire key, except for a very small offshoot which is where we camped. We learned that the fort became a prison, and had terrible living conditions. With ships came rats and yellow fever. Although this was paradise for us to visit, it was lonely and miserable here for the prisoners and soldiers. During the Civil War, they had over 500 people here, which is hard to imagine given that Dry Tortugas has no fresh water. Dr. Mudd was the most famous prisoner, and the boys were fascinated to see his prison cell. He set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln, after Booth escaped. Dr. Mudd was sent to Dry Tortugas as a prisoner where he lived from 1865-69. During that time, he helped many sick people, especially with the yellow fever epidemic. He was pardoned in 1869 and returned to his family in MD. Due to yellow fever and multiple hurricanes, Ft. Jefferson was abandoned in 1875.

It was used as a coal refueling point around 1900 by our naval ships, because it’s one of the few deep-water channels where big ships can get in. There were 2 areas on the key which used to be the coal storage areas, with huge pilings going down into the water. Now all that’s left are the pilings, with the sun pouring down through them into the water. The coral thrive there, supporting a huge ecosystem and food chain. So we snorkeled with the kids through these two areas, seeing a whole myriad of fish and coral. Unfortunately, Will touched some fire coral and his leg is now really itchy.

On the cat, we met a nice family from FL who has a 10-year old son named Eric. Ben and Eric were like two peas in a pod, going everywhere together. His family stayed overnight as well, although they were inside the fort as a guest of a friend! We had a nice time talking, and Eric’s Mom, Kathy snorkeled with us. She showed us some great coral heads off the sandy beach. Ben and Eric had fun collecting hermit crabs, as did Will and Sam. We discovered a "Chug" which is a Cuban refugee boat. Over the years, many Cubans attempt to cross the 90 miles of water to land on American soil. If they touch foot on soil, we let them stay. If we find them en route by boat, we take them back to Cuba. This photo shows a Chug that probably brought 16 Cubans here!

When the boats left in the afternoon, it was like we had the whole island to ourselves. Including park rangers and other campers, there were only about 40 or 50 people left. We enjoyed a tour inside the fort, hotdogs and a pasta salad dinner, followed by a dazzling sunset.

Then we headed for our tents. Will, Ben, and Sam decided to go out after dark with flashlights in search of lobsters on the moat wall. They spotted a huge spider crab. The boys, including Thom, camp all the time with Boy Scouts and also just for fun. I think the last time I slept in a tent was when Sam was a baby, and we literally got rained out in West Virginia. That must have been about 6 years ago. It was fun, but I sure missed my bed! Thom and I awoke to watch the sunrise, by simply walking a few feet from where we’d just watched the sunset the night before! We walked the moat at 7am, and saw two enormous lobsters. After a quick breakfast with the boys, we all headed out for a morning snorkel. What a great way to start the day. The sky was clear and blue, not cloudy like the day before. The colors underwater were supernatural with the sun flooding down through the blue. Will’s taken to snorkeling the most, and is the last to get out of the water. He studied all types of fish ahead of time, so he could identify the different fish. Sam is a natural snorkel boy too, and is quite courageous. It’s great watching them all dive down to swim with the fish and explore up close. Ben finally got comfortable after being a bit nervous. He said his snorkel and mask didn’t fit well, so he constantly pulled them off, refitting the mask. Robby swims and snorkels well, but once he’s chilly, wants to go in. So usually it’s Thom, Will, and me who continue snorkeling after the others exit the water.

That was the case at Dry Tortugas after our initial morning swim. The three of us walked over to the main boat dock and decided to go in before the boats arrived with the day tourists. Little did we know that the area was off limits for swimming. We’d spotted a huge, mammoth Grouper the evening before. Also, a fisherman caught one which was massive. So in we went. We cautiously snorkeled along the pylons, seeing small groups of fish. Then I heard Thom’s guttural voice through his snorkel. He spotted the Grouper!! And it was colossal!! He was looking up at Thom from about 15 ft down, and slowly moving closer! The three of us kept our wide eyes on him as we slowly swam backwards towards the beach. I’ll bet the Grouper weighed over 500 lbs! When he opened his mouth, I could have fit half my body in there! Once near the beach, he turned and swam away. I got out of the water! Thom and Will swam back and watched from a distance. Wow. Even scuba diving, I’ve never been that close to such a large fish. We talked with the park rangers later, who were surprised we snorkeled there, since it’s off limits. Anyway, they told us about 6 or 7 Grouper live here and get so huge because they’re protected. The one we swam with is nicknamed Otis.

Knowing we were leaving in a few hours, we savored every minute. I took loads of pictures. The boys had fun with Eric, and then we said Goodbye to his Mom and Dad. We boarded the Yankee Freedom II and headed out past Bush Key where thousands of birds were nesting in preparation for their migration north. The sky above the island was a moving, screeching, cloud of birds. Amazing.

The boys enjoyed standing at the bow of the catamaran on the 2 ½ hour boat ride home. They could look down and see the rushing water zoom between the two blades. We visited the bridge and talked with Cpt. Cory. He pointed out the location of the Atocha, the sunken Spanish treasure ship I talked about in an earlier blog. The ship carried $400 million of silver, gold, and emeralds, as well as thousands of artifacts. It sank in 1622, and was finally discovered in 1985 after years of searching. They’re still diving the site bringing up new treasures regularly. We saw some turtles on the surface, and before we knew it, we were back in Key West, just in time for another striking sunset.

We’ll stay a few more days in Key West, and then head north. The boys are working hard at school, and our goal is to finish the green test 120 for the three older boys, before Cousin Tucker arrives on April 13th. We can’t wait to have Tucker spend his Spring Break with us for a week!

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