By Doug Haddaway:
The Florida Keys were devastated by Hurricane Irma in September, but are recovering nicely and are now officially open for business.
Cruising down the Overseas Highway to Key West is a joy to first-timers and locals alike. The salt air fills your lungs, the turquoise waters invigorate ones senses and the sun warms the soul. Before you know it, you’re having an adult beverage at Captain Tony’s. But there is a hidden jewel in the Florida Keys that most visitors and many “conchs” have never laid eyes on.
The seven small islands that make up the Dry Tortugas lie 70 miles due west of Key West, a fisherman’s and naturalist’s paradise. These are the hidden jewels of the Florida Keys.
The Dry Tortugas are a National Park; however there are no facilities on the island with the exception of a tiny gift shop. Everything you need, you must pack in and pack out, including trash.
The crown jewel of the Dry Tortugas is Garden Key. The island is dominated by Fort Jefferson, a Civil War era masonry fort that was once used as a military prison, an American version of the infamous, “Devil’s Island.” The park rangers have an intimate knowledge of the fort and the wildlife around it. Though the rangers are extremely helpful, they are not a personal guide service. The island and fort are easy enough to explore on your own.
Reef fish, sport fish and good eating fish abound in the Dry Tortugas. This is paradise for fishermen. No place in the U.S. has the fish populations and diversity like the Dry Tortugas has, the fact it’s a National Park helps too. There are numerous places to cast a line at Fort Jefferson. The coaling docks and ferry docks are some of the more popular places to fish from.
If you decide to go fishing make sure you have your fishing license with you. Boaters will need a permit from the National Park Service office.
Bring your mask, snorkel and fins, but it’s no problem if you forget them, both the Yankee Freedom III and the seaplane service provide complimentary gear. Snorkeling around the perimeter of the fort is one the highlights of a visit to Fort Jefferson. This is fun for novice snorkelers and experienced divers alike. The marine life just yards from the masonry walls of the fort are truly amazing. Purple sea fans, elkhorn coral and a multitude of tropical fish like parrot fish and blue tang reside in the reef. You might even see a sea turtle.
The former coaling docks (the pilings just above the water’s surface) are another excellent place to see fish scamper about or have a curious six-foot long tarpon give you the once over. The pristine, gin-clear water often has visibility that exceeds 70 feet and bath-like temperatures can be 85 degrees in the summer. The Keys do get cold occasionally in the winter. During these rare cold snaps you may need to rent a wet suit to snorkel.
The Dry Tortugas were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513. He stopped there for fresh water, but found only sea turtles; hence the name the Dry Tortugas. They are a fascinating piece of the many histories surrounding Key West.
Fort Jefferson was built to protect the entrance into the Gulf of Mexico. Construction began in 1847, and 16 million bricks were imported from New England.
During the Civil War, the fort, like Key West, was garrisoned by Union soldiers. After the war, it became a military prison. The most prominent inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd. He is the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
The masonry fort was rendered obsolete by the introduction of rifled naval cannons and a shot was never fired in anger from the fort.
Fort Jefferson was used as a coaling station by the U.S. Navy. The U.S.S. Maine stopped here before her fateful voyage to Havana, Cuba.
After the Spanish-American War, the fort fell into disrepair and became a National Monument in 1935. During the Second World War, the fort was used as an observation post and anchorage for anti-submarine ships.
A day-trip to Fort Jefferson is a welcome relief from the crowds on Duval Street. It takes a little preparation to get there, but can be done with families, small children and people with disabilities. The ferry, Yankee Freedom III, is ADA compliant.
An overnight adventure requires a bit more planning. Remember, everything you need must be packed in and packed out. The rewards of overnighting at Fort Jefferson are amazing. The incredible snorkeling, fishing and the quiet solitude will leave you speechless. The sunrise and sunset, not to mention the spectacular night sky, will awe even the most jaded world traveler.
By ferry, the Yankee Freedom III leaves the Key West Ferry Dock promptly at 7:00 a.m. every morning (weather permitting) and returns at approximately 5:15 p.m. This is the cheapest trip and the only way for campers to go to Fort Jefferson. For information, call (305) 985-1597 or www.drytortugas.com/key-west.com.
Seaplane Adventures, based at Key West International Airport, is the only authorized seaplane service. I have taken the half-day tour, and it’s worth every penny. The fact that you fly in and land on the water makes the trip worthwhile, not mention 40 minutes in transit as opposed to three hours by ferry. If you can afford it, take the plane. For information, call 305-293-9300 or email [email protected] keywestseaplanecharters.com.
The Dry Tortugas are spectacular. Few people realize this tropical paradise even exists, much less visit it. If you’re in the Keys, make the trip to Fort Jefferson. You won’t be disappointed.