Dry Tortugas National Park: To an Island in the Gulf of Mexico

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Dry Tortugas National Park protects almost 65,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico seventy miles west of Key West, Florida. The National Park is surrounded by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. While the surface area of the Park is mostly water, a handful of tiny islands rise above the waves for a total of 104 acres of land. Chief among these are Loggerhead Key, which boasts the 157-foot tall Dry Tortugas Lighthouse, and Garden Key, site of Fort Jefferson and the primary hub of visitation in the Park. Only one other island, Bush Key, of the remaining five is open to the public. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the Dry Tortugas island group a National Monument in 1935. The boundaries were expanded in 1983, and Congress upgraded the Monument to a National Park in 1992.

Saturday, November 12, 2016 we began our Florida adventure. After the events of that week, it felt right to be headed to a literal desert island for a few days. And it was good to be visiting our shared public lands even as we were concerned about their future protection.

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Sean and I met the other Chicagoans, Nick, Juan, and Noah, at Frontera at O’Hare Airport, as was our tradition, for breakfast.

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Miami Beach

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Downtown Miami, Biscayne Bay, and Biscayne National Park in the distance

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Retention ponds near Everglades National Park

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Once on the ground in Miami, we picked up our bags and met the Detroiters, Adam, Kam, and Ion, near the rental car tram. Our flight had been delayed, so they had been waiting for a spell. At Enterprise, we Chicagoans upgraded to a minivan so that we’d be more comfortable with all our gear.

Once we were clear of the airport, we headed to the No Boundaries outfitter in Coral Gables for some last-minute supplies. We also visited the Books and Books across the street, and the guys loaded up with magazines to read while relaxing.

We headed south on Highway 1, passing the eastern edge of Everglades National Park before crossing from mainland Florida to the Keys at Key Largo. The boys were excited to pass not one, but two Shell Worlds. But Shell World was not, yet, our destination. It was time for some dinner.

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We ate by the water at Island Grill in Key Largo. Our table was mere steps from the shore, and throughout the meal we were distracted by lizards and crabs and such. Nine-year-old Ion, who had never been to the ocean before, got his first taste of the types of creatures he’d be seeing on the trip. (Imagine if your first trip to the ocean were to go camping on a desert island!)

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Carinate Curly-Tailed Lizard

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Image: Adam Geffen

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Fiddler Crab

It also happened to be my 38th birthday, and it was a good way to celebrate.

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By the time we finished eating the sun was setting, so most of the drive down the overseas highway to Key West would be in the dark. In the minivan, Sean DJed and it was something of a sing-along party van.

When we arrived at Casa Amor, I phoned the housekeeper. We were later than we thought, so it was too late for her to come over, but she explained how to get in and walked me around the space once we were inside. It was a touch hard to hear her with the shrieking and running around the others were doing. They were excited, and no wonder, the place was gorgeous. We each chose bedrooms and settled in for our two nights in Key West.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

After we’d unloaded, we headed out to celebrate my birthday with some key lime pie and champagne.

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Afterward, the Detroiters headed back to Casa Amor while the Chicagoans went out for a couple birthday drinks on Duval Street. But we too were tired from a long day of travel and soon headed back. Or at least some of us did.

Back at Casa Amor, Sean and I watched Kate McKinnon’s “Hallelujah” cold open from SNL, sighed, and went to sleep.

Next morning, Sunday, November 13, 2016, we woke to coffee, relaxing, and trying out new snorkeling masks and underwater camera cases in the small Casa Amor pool. Sean and the Detroiters all had new full-face snorkel masks, which allow you to breathe more normally while swimming along. At Virgin Islands National Park three-and-a-half years earlier, Sean had felt constricted with a normal snorkel mask, and he didn’t want to miss out on underwater explorations this time around.

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I joined the Detroiters for breakfast at The Cafe, a vegan/vegetarian place. Both Kam and Ion are vegan, and they were delighted with the food, as were Adam and I, who are decidedly not vegan.

Video: Sean M. Santos

While we were gone, Nick and Sean had a video shoot.

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Image: Nick Baker

Various groups of us were in and out all day long. At one point, the other Chicagoans bought sarongs at a shop on Duval Street. By the end of the trip, all eight of us owned a sarong.

Back at the house in the afternoon, I began to fret a bit that everyone was galavanting around Key West, but we needed to buy food, water, and charcoal for Dry Tortugas camping the next day.

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Around five, we Chicagoans strolled out to take in the sunset at Mallory Square. We’d have to get supplies afterward.

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Mallory Square

The Detroiters met us for the sunset.

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Noah explains the features of her camera to a fellow tourist.

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Noah, Brandon, Nick, Kamrin, Adam, Sean, Juan, and Ion

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Key West Post Office

Back at Casa Amor, we got serious about getting ready for the morning. Adam and I took the lead, splitting up a shared gear and food list. We were bestowed with the nicknames Daddy A and Daddy B by the others. Daddy B took the Chicagoans to the Winn Dixie where it was a bit like herding cats (including one of our number who just couldn’t shop anymore and sat on a bench eating knock-off Pringles)…but we eventually got all we needed.

Back at the house, we ordered pizzas and packed for camping. Since there would be no one in the house the two nights we’d be on Dry Torgugas, the owner of Casa Amor, Michel, said we could leave the things we didn’t need to take behind, which was extremely convenient.

Sean was sad as we packed. He was already having so much fun that he was sad for the first bit of the trip to be over.

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Next morning, Monday, November 14, 2016, we arrived at the Key West Bight a little before 6:30am, which was check-in time for campers on the Yankee Freedom III ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park.

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While we were loading our gear (including twelve five-gallon jugs of water since there was no fresh water on Dry Tortugas…hence the “Dry”), we met some of the crew, including Captain Michelle. Afterward, we waited in the terminal waiting room as the day trippers slowly arrived for the ferry’s 7:30am boarding time.

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Brown Pelican

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We were tired, since we’d gotten to bed so late, but excited.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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When it was time to board, on Michel’s advice we went immediately to the interior upper deck and secured two tables near windows for our group.

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Our gear, strapped to the stern of the ferry

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At 8am we were underway over extraordinarily smooth seas west toward Dry Tortugas. When Sean and Noah had done the day trip to Dry Tortugas many years earlier, the sea had been rough and Noah had been seasick, but not this morning.

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The channel took us south of some of the outlying keys, including the Marquesas Keys, near Key West. The Marquesas are about a third of the way between Key West and Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are the final, farthest extension of the Florida Keys to the southwest. From the Dry Tortugas, the Keys stretch back around the tip of Florida to Soldier Key at the northern extent of Biscayne National Park south of Miami.

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Kam, Ion, and Adam

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Nick, Juan, and Sean

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On the voyage, we spotted some dolphins, a turtle, and some fish in the shallow waters. A series of wide-set little buoys kept us on course.

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The voyage took about two and a quarter hours, during which breakfast was served on the ferry.

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At one point a naval helicopter flew overhead, likely returning to Key West from Dry Tortugas.

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When we knew that we would soon be close enough to see the islands, Juan and I stepped back outside to the bow and began scanning the horizon.

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Sure enough, there it was: an old brick and mortar fort rising low from the sea.

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As we approached Garden Key, we went south of some of the tiny outlying keys in the Tortugas group. These were really just spits of sand barely reaching above the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

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Long Key (left), Bush Key, Garden Key with Fort Jefferson, and Loggerhead Key (right)

Soon the larger keys and the fort resolved into view. To the left was Long Key, the only breeding ground for Magnificent Frigatebirds in the United States (and thereby off limits to the public). Then came low-lying Bush Key, which in the summer supports a huge nesting colony of Sooty Terns. Garden Key is the site of Fort Jefferson and main area of Park and visitor activity. And Loggerhead Key, largest of the islands with its tall lighthouse, was to the right.

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Bush Key and Garden Key

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Loggerhead Key

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Garden Key and Long Key

We approached around the west side of Garden Key, coming around to the ferry dock on the southeast side of the island.

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Old coaling dock, now a helicopter pad

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Remains of the old coaling dock

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Ferry dock

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The day trippers disembarked first. Once they were clear, the campers gathered upstairs on the ferry while a National Park Service Ranger gave us our orientation and shared the rules of camping on the island: camp only in designated sites, do not enter the Fort after dark, etc. He also said that were there a true emergency, Park staff resided in rooms and structures inside the fort, but that we should assume responsibility to be self sufficient unless there were a true emergency. He said that occasionally there were refugees from Cuba who arrived in the middle of the night, but that was now uncommon. (These refugees fleeing to Dry Tortugas from Cuba were the opposite of the slaves and prisoners in the nineteenth century who attempted to escape Dry Tortugas to Havana.) He asked if we had any particular skills (such as medical training) that could be useful in an emergency. Kam offered that he was a certified arborist. The ranger chuckled and said he’d let him know if there were any tree emergencies.

With that, he welcomed us to Dry Tortugas National Park, and we began to unload our gear.

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We found a great pair of campsites under some trees. A previous group of campers was just vacating and getting ready to load their gear onto the ferry. Once they were clear, we began putting up our tents and getting organized.

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Brown Anole Lizard

The whole thing was something like a dream. Nick and Juan were giddy because they’d wanted to do this for so long. Ion was having an insane first experience of the ocean. And the rest of us were ready to relax in a very special place.

 

 

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