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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades

By Rick Ferren

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Florida Keys & Everglades > The Lower Florida Keys > Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park

[Fig. 9] Although Key West is often considered the end of the Keys chain, that real honor belongs to the Dry Tortugas, a group of seven coral islands 70 miles west of Key West. The islands' coral reefs are among the best and least disturbed in the Keys.

The islands were first discovered in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, who named them the Tortugas because of all the sea turtles he found breeding there. The word "dry" was added later to warn sailors of the lack of water. Click here for a new window with a larger version of this map.

Following Ponce de Leon's visit, Spanish vessels continued to stop at the Tortugas to collect turtles, seabirds, and eggs for their ships' stores. Pirates later used the islands as a strategic base from which to prey upon ships in the Straits of Florida. After Florida became a United States territory in 1821, the islands were garrisoned and fortified to protect navigation between ports on the East Coast and New Orleans and the Mississippi River.

The Tortugas' tropical vegetation includes red-barked gumbo-limbo trees, coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), date palms (Phoenix dactylifera), seagrape, prickly pear cactus, and ancient buttonwood trees that were probably mature when Ponce de Leon set eyes on them in 1513.

Today, divers, anglers, and sightseers converge on the Tortugas every day, drawn by the natural wonders of a true tropical paradise. Yet, it's an incongruous, nineteenth century fort that is the main attraction. There in the middle of nowhere, covering almost all of a 16-acre island, stands Fort Jefferson, the largest brick structure in the Northern Hemisphere.

Travel To Fort Jefferson And The Dry Tortugas

Travel to the fort is by seaplane or boat. A one-day round-trip boat ride from Key West can take up to eight or nine hours, depending on the boat and sea conditions.

A seaplane on the other hand takes about 35 minutes and is definitely one of the premier experiences in the Florida Keys. Although moderately expensive, it's a day that will fill many pages in your vacation journal, your photo scrapbook, and your memory file.

There's the lift off into the wind, then a turn over the city of Key West as the pilot turns and heads west. From the bird's-eye view of the seaplane, you can easily spot sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, dolphins, and schools of smaller fish swimming in the clear, shallow waters of Florida Bay. Flocks of seabirds cast fleeting shadows on the sea 500 feet below.

Next, passing below are the Marquesas Keys—an irregular ring of seven coral islands that resembles a coral atoll type usually found only in the South Pacific where a ring of coral islands surrounds a central lagoon. The Marquesas are also one of very few North American nesting sites for the magnificent frigatebird. Sometimes the pilot will drop down low enough over the islands to spot some of the large, black fork-tailed birds. Large fish and sharks are easy to spot in the shallow water surrounding the islands.

Another part of the flight passes over an area of shifting undersea sand dunes called the Quicksands. The dunes are at the mercy of strong tide and storm currents. A white mast poking out of the water marks the clearly visible outline of a sunken ship.

The Arbutus was treasure-hunter Mel Fisher's work vessel. The 70-foot ship sank from hull deterioration, with no loss of life, during Fisher's expedition to salvage Spanish treasure that tropical storms had strewn across the sea bottom. Fisher's successful efforts to liberate millions of dollars in booty from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and Santa Margarita have inspired other adventurers to plumb the depths for other caches of South American gold, silver, and emeralds that never completed their voyage to Spain's royal coffers.

The pilot will also point out the ghostly shadows of the World War II destroyer escort Patricia. The Navy intentionally scuttled her as a bombing practice target.

Thirty-five minutes and 70 miles after leaving Key West, the seaplane banks sharply over the morning's destination, star-shaped Fort Jefferson, which occupies virtually all of 16-acre Garden Key. From the air, this huge, outofplace, outoftime structure is a surrealistic sight, a giant incongruity in a land of bluegreen waters and emerald islands.

From the moment the plane begins to descend begin watching for unusual birds. Out the airplane's window you might easily spot a magnificent frigatebird or a white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) with its long white flowing tail. Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) Red-tailed hawks hunt for small mammals from the air or exposed perches such as dead trees.

After landing in the protected harbor next to the key, and the plane bumps onto the beach of Garden Key, only a few yards from the entrance into the red-brick ramparts of Fort Jefferson.

Fort Jefferson

[Fig. 9(1)] "All who enter here, lose all hope," are the words that grace the entrance to Dr. Samuel Mudd's prison cell at Fort Jefferson in Florida's Dry Tortugas Islands. For a little history reminder, Mudd was the physician who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg during his escape after shooting Abraham Lincoln. Mudd was later tried for conspiracy in Lincoln's murder, sentenced to life in prison, and shipped off to Fort Jefferson.

He must have been just as astounded as modernday visitors to see the massive red fort rising up from the horizon and towering over the shallow waters, earning it the nickname "Gibraltar of the Gulf."

The sixsided structure has 50foothigh walls that are 8 feet thick. It's over 0.5 mile around the fort's walls. Complete with ramparts, bastions, a moat, and a drawbridge it might look more at home guarding an important seaport.

When Thomas Jefferson conceived of a string of forts protecting the United States' coast from Maine to Texas, the Tortugas were again considered for their strategic location. Eventually Garden Key was picked as the site of the largest of these coastal fortifications, which was named for Jefferson.

The military minds of the time determined the fort's location would allow for control of the shipping lanes between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, including the commerce beginning to flow from the Mississippi Valley and the Panama Canal Railroad. The fort could harbor a defensive fleet that would patrol the Florida Straits, engage the enemy, then duck inside the protection of the fort's cannons.

Standing upon the ramparts you can sense the domination hundreds of cannons would have over the surrounding waters. The fort's bastions, which are rounded extensions at each corner, made it possible to train a crossfire upon any point outside the walls. It was the ultimate defensive structure of its time.

Under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, construction began in 1846 and continued on and off for 30 years. Forty-two million bricks were hauled to the island and after the foundation was completed, the walls slowly began to rise, reaching only 10 feet by 1856 and 20 feet by 1858. The fort's current height was reached in 1862 but construction on much of the fort's interior was never completed.

It no longer mattered. The fort took so long to build its impervious defenses were overcome by improvements in weaponry. At the time construction began, thick walls were the accepted defense to stop cannonballs that would simply get stuck in the bricks or bounce off. The Civil War, however, saw the invention of the rifled cannon, capable of sending a projectile that would penetrate and knock out huge chunks of bricks. A fleet of ships could simply lie off the fort and reduce it to rubble.

As a result only 141 guns were ever placed in the 420 designed gun emplacements, and they were never fired in a confrontation.

Under the control of Union forces, Fort Jefferson had been a deserters' prison for four years when Samuel Mudd arrived on the docks in midsummer of 1865, one of four Lincoln-assassination conspirators sentenced in life in prison at Fort Jefferson. Upon his first acquaintance with the isolated fort, towering four stories above the dock, he must have found it easy to "lose all hope."

At home, Mudd's wife worked for his release based on his innocence. Even today, Mudd's relatives continue to campaign to clear his name.

When Mudd was thwarted in an attempt to escape on a ship returning to the mainland, he was confined to a dank dungeon. His departure would be hastened by an enemy the fort builders never predicted. Yellow fever attacked the garrison. It struck quickly, spreading through prison guard and prisoner alike.

Mudd arose from his chains and solitary confinement to become the healing angel to these devastated men. Part of his treatment was to have the men pound holes through the walls to let in the fresh sea air. He is credited with saving the lives of all who survived.

Thirty-eight died including officers and their spouses and children, but Mudd was credited with saving the lives of many others. Grateful officers petitioned President Andrew Johnson to pardon Dr. Mudd. However, Johnson had serious troubles of his own. Congress was in the midst of impeachment proceedings against him, and he dared not provide his enemies additional artillery by releasing such a notorious prisoner.

President Johnson avoided conviction by a single vote in the Senate, and on his last day in the White House issued the order freeing Dr. Mudd from the hell where he'd languished for three years, seven months, and 12 days.

The fort was closed in the 1870s. Years later, near the turn of the century, it was reopened as a quarantine station for ships contaminated with cholera, yellow fever, or small pox. The entire ship would be unloaded. Everything portable was stacked in an oven and treated with heat and steam. The ship itself was sealed and filled with sulphur gas. Afterwards the crew was safe to land at any American port.

Fort Jefferson was proclaimed the Tortugas Keys Reservation in 1908 to protect the bountiful bird life. In 1935 it was declared a National Monument by Franklin Roosevelt. In 1992 the fort and the surrounding islands were redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park.

An orientation film in the fort's visitor center will give you some background on the site. A small gift shop has books, film and postcards, but no food or drinks. The self-guided tour takes you through the soldiers' barracks, officers' quarters, brick colonnades, parade grounds, lighthouse, dungeons, and along the seawall that girds the more than 150-year-old fortress.

Within the 7acre interior of the fort is a vast green lawn dotted with tropical trees and plants. There is also an ammunition dump inside, and a cannonball furnace. Red hot cannonballs was used at the time to set fire to enemy ships.

A surrounding seawall encloses a moat, which contains a perpetually calm marine environment that resembles waters on the leeward (protected) side of a reef. Even on stormy days, when strong winds and waves churn up the seas outside the wall, a variety of life inside the moat goes about its business unperturbed. Nondiving and non-snorkeling visitors can see a sampling of the coral reef's sea life while taking a casual stroll. Swimming and fishing are prohibited in the moat.

One of the inhabitants is the gray mangrove snapper, an excellent edible fish that's also plentiful in the waters off the dock. Yellow stingrays (Urolophus jamiecensis) burrow themselves into the sand, poking the sharp spine at the base of their tail at anything or anybody that comes within range. Green and yellow parrotfish search the bottom for food.

A sea squirt resembles a squeeze bottle with a pair of siphons. It feeds by drawing water through one siphon, filtering out the edible organisms, and ejecting the water through the other siphon. Also common are sea cucumbers, which feed on small creatures on the bottom of the moat. The queen conch, enclosed in its magnificent pink shell, looks as cumbersome as a landbound tortoise, but in search of algae and sea grasses, it can move up to 100 yards a day. Its tracks can sometimes be seen in the clear waters of the moat.

Sweltering in the tropical heat and humidity, most visitors welcome the opportunity to cool down with a swim in shallow water lapping a pristine sandy beach. Snorkeling is excellent in 4- to 7-foot waters, marked by one of Florida's finest living coral reefs.

The depths are alight with yellow, brown, and green corals. Sea fans, staghorn coral, sea whips, and sponges stand out from the bottom. Sea anemones poke rose and lavender tentacles upward for a chance to catch a small fish. Lobsters, sea cucumbers, and queen conch bury themselves in the sand. Toothy, territorial barracudas cruise at a safe distance. The visitor's guide advises, "If you can count their teeth, you've gotten too close."

Besides the plentiful species of undersea life you might see an occasional loggerhead sea turtle or green sea turtle swimming by between the waving, wide-bladed turtle grass and the surface. Snorkelers and swimmers should also be wary of spiny green and black sea urchins and the sharp, fine spikes of bristle worms. And, as always, don't touch the coral. Humans constitute the greatest danger to the fragile reefs. Contact with the reefs kills the tiny polyps and can also leave the perpetrator with a nasty cut, or an offending boat with serious damage.

The incredible bird life brings many visitors to the islands. The Dry Tortugas are the only place in the contiguous United States where several species of tropical birds can be seen regularly, including white-tailed tropicbird, masked booby (Sula dactylatra), brown booby (Sula leucogaster), red-footed booby, and magnificent frigatebirds, to name a few. Nearly 300 species have been recorded on the small islands, many as storm-driven accidentals and others that just stop over for a rest during migration. The islands are in the path of one of the principal flyways between North and South America.

The big event occurs each year beginning in late March and continuing for the next few weeks with the arrival of an estimated 100,000 sooty terns. The birds take up nesting sites in the sand on Bush Key, just a few hundred yards from the fort.

Except for Hawaii, Bush Key is home to the sooty tern's only major United States breeding colony. Up to 100,000 black and white sooties wing in from the Caribbean and west-central Atlantic, some from as far away as the West Coast of Africa. They mate while in flight, and when they finally land, females immediately lay their single egg in the sand. Parents take turns shading the egg from sunlight and protecting it from predators. They care for the hatched chick for 8 to 10 weeks.

People are prohibited on Bush Island from March through September—a blessing for all concerned. Sooties are fiercely protective and will attack anything, no matter how large, which poses a real or imagined threat to their young. However, the rookery's swarming activity can be easily observed through binoculars from Fort Jefferson. A much smaller number of brown noddies (Anous stolidus), roseate terns, and magnificent frigatebirds also nest on Bush Key. (The brown noddy and other noddies got their name, which can mean sleepy head, because they were so tame and easy to approach and kill, almost as if they were nodding off.)

By June, all the eggs have hatched and Bush Key's beaches are alive with juvenile sooty terns in full raucous cry. Magnificent frigatebirds, with their 7-foot wingspans and the males' distinctive puffed-up red chest pouches, can appear in numbers as high as 500. They frequently prey on the fledgling terns.

When the young terns are able to fly and fend for themselves, the colony takes flight and spends most of its time at sea, living on fish and squid caught at the surface of the water. The adult birds return every year, but the young ones will journey across the Atlantic and not return for four or five years.

Spring is height of migration for a wide and unpredictable variety of migrating warblers, vireos, and songbirds. Although some northbound early birds arrive as early as mid-February, most appear from the end of March to about the third week of May. White-tailed tropicbirds are regulars in late April and early May.

During September and October, the Tortugas' most regular migrants are raptors, particularly sharp-shinned and broad-winged hawks, merlins, and peregrine falcons, which prey on smaller land birds. In winter, the most prevalent birds are gulls and terns that follow the fishing fleets and a few land birds such as American kestrels, belted kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon), gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata), palm warblers, and Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis).

One way to describe the fishing in the Dry Tortugas would be to say it's the same as anywhere else in the Florida Keys, only better. Fishing charters out of Key West regularly ply these waters for amberjack, grouper, snapper, wahoo, tarpon, and shark.

If you're camping, you can catch gray snapper from under the dock for use on that grill in the campground. A live bait free-lined into the harbor just at sunrise has the chance of attracting one of the big tarpon that hang around the harbor. That is, if the sharks and barracuda don't find it first.

The game fish activity is excellent both inside and outside of the park. Snapper are the most sought after species. Mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis) have a spawning run in the spring. And mangrove snapper arrive in big numbers during a summer spawning period. Catches of yellowtail snapper have been on the increase the last few years.

Ten tree-shaded, first-come, first-served campgrounds next to the fort have picnic tables, grills, and access to saltwater toilets, but no fresh water. You must bring your own fresh water and all supplies when camping. Except for a drinking fountain inside the visitor center, there's no water available to the public, even in the restrooms on the dock. Campers may not have the comforts of a hot shower at day's end, but they have amenities day visitors miss: They can sit on the deserted beach and savor their own sunset celebration and take romantic moonlight walks around the seawall. In the spring the buttonwood trees in the campground fill with migrating warblers, giving campers the luxury of identifying a dozen or more species without stirring from their sleeping bags.

Tours of the fort are led by National Park Service personnel, or you can wander around by yourself watching for enemy ships on the horizon to train your cannon on.

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