In the year 1513, new world explorer Ponce de Leon happened upon seven small remote islands 70 miles west of what we now know as Key West, FL. To his delight, the place was teeming with marine life, particularly sea turtles. He soon captured 160 of these tasty, valuable creatures and, not surprisingly, forever after referred to these islands as the "Tortugas" in honor of the turtles. The "Dry" part was prefaced to the name later when it was discovered that there was no fresh water to be found anywhere on the islands.
Today, the Dry Tortugas is one of the smallest and most remote of the National Parks in the United States. Due to its isolated location, it is also one of the least visited. The park covers 64,657 acres, and to the snorkel and dive enthusiast's delight, 99 percent of this area is coral reefs and undersea attractions. These islands may be part of the US, but once you arrive, you'll definitely feel like you're in a foreign, exotic location one that simply reeks with history.
During the 1600 and 1700s, the Dry Tortugas was used as a pirate base for lawless and bloody attacks upon the shipping interests in the Gulf of Mexico. By 1825, however, most of the pirate activity had ceased in the area and a lighthouse was erected on Garden Key, the largest of the seven island group that makes up the Dry Tortugas. This light, which is still in existence today, was later supplemented by a lighthouse on Loggerhead Key to warn ships of the dangerous reefs and shallow waters that abound.
After the war of 1812, the US government envisioned a greater need to defend the new country from invaders. Fort Jefferson, to be built on Garden Key, was intended to be the greatest in a series of forts that would stretch along the coast from Maine to Texas. Later, in 1845, a military camp was established on the islands, and in 1846 construction of Fort Jefferson finally began. It was, however, a slow and tedious undertaking.
The construction of the fort dragged out over 30 years before the project was eventually scrapped. A combination of reasons ranging from inconsistent funding from Congress, difficulty with workers and supplies from the mainland, epidemics, hurricanes, and the lessening of the importance of these islands as a strategic location all spelled trouble for Fort Jefferson's future. The final straw was the discovery that the fort was actually sinking.
The Civil War brought about several advances in weaponry, the rifled cannon being one. Modern artillary left Fort Jefferson's 45-foot high walls built from 16 million handmade bricks vulnerable, as enemy fire could now breach its previously impenetrable barrier. During and after this period, the fort was used primarily as a military prison to house both criminals and deserters. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was banished to the prison fort for taking care of John Wilkes Booth's broken leg, after Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. The Fort Jefferson we know today was declared a national monument in 1935, and the Dry Tortugas became a national park in 1992.
For the average adventurer, the only way to reach this park is by seaplane, or by one of two daily tour boats that travel the sometimes rough waters from Key West, FL. Cruising sailors, however, have the luxury of coming and going as they please, from whatever direction the wind blows. One of the most interesting parts of sailing into the Dry Tortugas is that you never know whom you're going to see. Cruisers can be in port en route from Cuba, Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys or the Bahamas. It's not uncommon to see several different foreign flags.
When planning a trip to the Dry Tortugas, choose a weather window carefully. Rough sea conditions and strong northerly winds, particularly in the winter, can strand the sailor, sometimes for a week or more. Be sure you've brought plenty of food and water for a stay longer than you'd planned.
The day we sailed in from Key West, the forecast was for 20 knots of wind. Just an hour into our journey, we found ourselves in a steady 30 knots with gusts to 35. Luckily, it was from a good direction, and we literally surfed our way there, hitting 13.4 knots in speed one time! We made the trip from Key West in one day, arriving around 2:30 in the afternoon. Slower boats, and those with a draft of five feet or less, will often make an intermediate stop at the Marquesas Keys. This cluster of atoll-like islands, 24 miles west of Key West and directly en route to the Dry Tortugas, can provide good shelter for an overnight stay.
The imposing structure of Fort Jefferson dominates the very flat islands as you sail close to the Dry Tortugas from any direction. Our approach to Garden Key was straight forward with one caveat. The Southeast Channel between Bush Key and Garden Key had shoaled over and was no longer an option for entering the anchorage. When we were there, the channel markers for Southeast Channel were still in place, but the red and green placards were replaced with signs that read "shoal." This initially threw us for a loop because nothing jibed with our charts, so we stayed off in the deeper water and called the park ranger, who responded immediately, with further information.
After several minutes, we found the Southwest Channel and safely entered the anchorage to drop the hook in the lee of Garden and Bush Key, just a stone's throw from the fort. Surfing down 10-foot waves all day can wear you out, so we looked forward to a quiet, peaceful night at anchor. Were we in for a surprise!
Our few nights at anchor in the Dry Tortugas, with the strong easterly winds, represented one of the bumpiest times we can remember. In fact, one night when on a friend's boat for dinner, (a "stable" catamaran, no less) we were being pitched around so much, Larry finally exclaimed, "I've got white caps in my red wine!"
A half dozen, or so, small commercial fishing boats in the anchorage were surrounded by cheeky birds looking for a free supper. Commercial fishermen are allowed to use the anchorage at the Dry Tortugas for refuge, but in return are not allowed to sell any of their catch for money. They are, however, very willing to trade fish or lobster for some beer, spirits, or cigarettes.
When you're ready to stretch your legs ashore, you have the choice of taking a self-guided tour through the fort or you can take advantage of a knowledgeable ranger who will give you a guided tour, complete with all the interesting details of history. We set off to explore the fort with our friends and, although we didn't choose the guided tour, we did stop at the visitor's center. We watched a short video that did an excellent job of educating us and made the subsequent exploring through the fort much more interesting.
On the second level, we were treated to a spectacular view of the emerald and azure waters through each majestic arched opening. As you make your way around, it's easy to imagine pirate ships with full Skull and Crossbones flying, or poor Dr. Mudd writing daily journals to his wife. If you look straight down from the archways, you may see a barracuda or angel fish swimming by in the moat that completely surrounds the fort. Just don't get too close as one lady did the week after we were there. In the classic move of backing up too far when having her picture taken, she fell right into the moat. Luckily, no gators got her, and after being airlifted back to the Florida mainland for examination, was OK.
After a fun few hours of exploring the fort, and being glad we didn't have to get back on the tour boat leaving for Key West, we got our snorkeling gear together and set off in the dinghy. There were endless numbers of great spots to explore in the coral wonderlands, most in very shallow water. Colorful reef fish in every hue imaginable danced gently amongst coral clusters and sea anemones, entertaining us for hours. We also kept a sharp eye out for sunken treasuresyou never know with all those pirates.
Dinghying across to the smaller islands will reward you with a bird-watcher's paradise. In fact, it's so good that the Audubon Society sponsors guided birding trips every year during April and May.
But even though our time at anchor was rough, we have no regrets at having made the trip. The Dry Tortugas are truly spectacular and offer a rare glimpse of a lost time in history. The natural wonders of wildlife and sea-life filled our days and the magical sunsets will stay with us forever.
DRY TORTUGAS CRUISING INFORMATION
Dockage - No marina facilities. One dock on Garden Key permits boats to tie up for two hours, if space is available.
Anchoring / Moorings - Overnight anchoring permitted only within one mile of Fort Jefferson Harbor Light. No mooring buoys. Good holding in sand.
Protection - Moderate protection provided by Bush Key & Garden Key
Getting Ashore - Dinghies can beach anywhere. Certain islands are restricted during wildlife breeding/nesting seasons.
Facilities - None. No fuel, water, waste disposal, or food. Visitors must provide everything themselves and pack all their trash out. Restroom facilities at Fort Jefferson.
Points of Interest - Fort Jefferson, bird and turtle watching, fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving, kayaking, camping.
Guidebooks - Southern Waterway Guide, Embassy Guide to the Florida Keys, The Florida Keys and Everglades Guide by Capt. Freya Rauscher
Charts Needed - NOAA Chart 11434 & 11438.