It’s been 6 months since we first washed up on the shores of Fort Jefferson, right alongside a deserted Cuban refugee raft emblazoned with the words “Vamos Con Dios.”
Translation: We Go With God.
A haunting welcome to a place that couldn’t be more paradoxical. Sinister remnants of a 19th-century military fortress, splattered across a backdrop of paradise - blue skies, turquoise waters and silver flashes of rolling tarpon.
I’ve danced around the idea of writing about this day. I’ve procrastinated it because it's difficult to truly convey the grandeur of a place like this. And sometimes a quick little Instagram post just gives you an easy out.
Prior to our visit here, I had never given much thought to the Dry Tortugas or really even knew what existed there.
My cousin Richard had devised a plan for the last day of our Keys vacation (and appropriately, Mike's birthday) - fishing our way to the Dry Tortugas.
With our motley crew, there's really not much convincing needed when fishing is involved. We toted bait, beers and ice through the sleepy sunrise streets of Key West, hopped on board a Contender and headed 70 miles westward bound across the Gulf of Mexico.
The Dry Tortugas are made up of seven islands that were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and originally named “Las Tortugas,” The Turtles. The name soon became Dry Tortugas to indicate the absence of fresh water on the islands.
In 1846, the U.S. Army began construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, the second largest island. Built with 16 million handmade red bricks, the sheer size of the fortress is silencing. Three-tiers high, six-sides, outward-facing gunrooms equipped for 420 heavy guns, topped with towering lighthouses and 15-foot cannons. 'Merica.
The on-duty park ranger directed us to a self-service fee area on the main dock to sign in and pay the $10 entry fee. Guided tours are offered, but we decided to lead our own explorations. Partially because we plotted a "shotgunning of beers ceremony" on the rooftop and wanted to avoid being thwarted by authority.
Next time, I would consider joining a tour to hear all the juicy tales that you just can’t read about on the signs.
Historically, pirates used these islands as a base to carry out attacks on ships traveling the world’s busiest shipping route from California to Maine. The fort was intended to protect the piracy-prone shipping routes and to guard the southern U.S. coastline. The construction was never actually completed nor was the fort ever used for warfare.
During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was home to over 1,700 military, hundreds of civilians and prisoners which were mainly criminals and soldiers who deserted the Union. The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
After most of the occupants were swept out by disease, the fort had become costly to maintain and was handed over to the Marine-Hospital Service as a quarantine station from 1888-1900.
In 1992, Fort Jefferson received its designation as a National Park status by President George Bush.
Roaming the endless corridors, climbing the dark, winding staircases, overlooking the shallow reefs; one can't help but romanticize the tales that have transpired here throughout the 500 years since the island was discovered.
Victims of perilous shipwrecks, pirates plundering ships of yore, prisoners left for dead, never to return home. Even today, Cuban refugee rafts wash ashore almost weekly and drunken captains wreck their vessels in the shallow waters.
Even if you don't believe in the supernatural, you may begin to question whether spirits roam the island at night and how in the world those park rangers can live here for weeks at a time.
The Dry Tortugas National Park is 100 square miles, ninety nine percent of which is submerged under the aquamarine waters that host some of the healthiest coral reefs in the tropical Atlantic Ocean.
The protection of these waters allows the reefs to play a critical role in the Florida Keys ecosystem. The Dry Tortugas reefs are essentially a spawning ground for marine life, helping to repopulate the Florida Keys ecosystem that has been depleting for years due to pollution and overfishing.
Camping, bird watching (a staple on the Great Florida Birding Trail), beach combing, guided fort tours. The Dry Tortugas isn't just a historical landmark where you walk for hours listening to a tour guide drone on - there is so much more to experience in this tropical destination.
The highlight of our trip, we spontaneously discovered, wasn't Fort Jefferson at all.
Departing the island, we sighted a tiny patch of sandbar peeking out of the water. When life hands you a slice of paradise, you take your crew and a couple beers and you pretend to own that island.
I'm pretty sure the song "Saltwater Gospel" by Eli Young Band was the soundtrack blaring down from the heavens on this day.
Stumbling across priceless souvenirs is always a treat. Mike dug up some old buoys buried in the sand which, to me, beats any gift shop trinket made in China or high-dollar shiny thing from a fancy boutique.
These buoys now hang on our back porch and are used shamelessly as an excuse to tell the story.
Later on, as my obsession with this place deepened, I geeked out and bought the official Dry Tortugas poster from the National Parks collection so I can longingly dream of a return trip.
These remote islands make up one of the most unique and beautiful places I've had the privilege to visit. You don't need a private boat to make the 70 mile trek here; check out the ferries and seaplanes that travel over from Key West. Ferry tickets for adults are in the $175 range, while seaplanes are for the ballers.
At this point, some of you have glossed over this post with utter disregard, looking for the answer to only one question...
But how was the FISHING? That was pretty good too.
Visiting the Dry Tortugas was a welcome reminder that there is still so much in my own backyard that I have yet to discover.
What other landmarks am I missing out on in the Sunshine State?
Where should we go next?