Dry Tortugas National Park: Sunset and Sunrise Over “Bird Island”

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Sanderling

On November 15, 2016, evening approached the Dry Tortugas, and some of us made our way toward Bush Key, which we had dubbed “Bird Island,” for the sunset. Twenty-four hours after first wandering out onto Bush Key for the previous evening’s sunset, the island not only felt more expansive, but this short walk felt like a trek (in a good way), even though it was less than a mile.

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This time, we walked along the northern shore of Bush Key, which, unlike the protected southern shore, was littered with debris that had washed up with the surf.

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Sea Fan. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Like the previous evening, the skies were overcast, but evocative.

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Coral

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Although we weren’t thinking this at the time, it’s difficult to look at these low clouds and not think about how terrifying it would be to experience a hurricane churning across these tiny islands and literally reshaping them in a couple of hours.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Sea Fan

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Brain Coral

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Conch shell

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Coral? Or a decomposing Conch shell? I’m so confused. Image: Sean M. Santos

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What is it about humans that inspires us to create shapes and patterns out of shells and corals found along the shore? Is it a compulsion to art? To communicate? To say “we were here”? We witnessed the same phenomenon, in a spectacular fashion, at Virgin Islands National Park.

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Hermit Crab in a Whelk shell. Image: Sean M. Santos

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And of course, being human, we contributed to the phenomenon.

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Atlantic Purple Sea Urchin and Conch shells

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Walking back along the tranquil south shore of Bush Key felt like a lullaby.

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Great Blue Heron

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We had had such a late, hearty lunch that we had a relatively light supper in camp. Plus, we were running short of charcoal. (Camp stove fuel is not allowed on the ferry.)

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Hermit Crab

We noticed that we were visited by a little menagerie of Hermit Crabs, some of whom were quite large and territorial. We even witnesses a couple fighting each other near our picnic table.

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Hermit Crabs

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Sean and I went on a moat walk, expecting to relive the magic of our multiple moat walks from the night before, but this night the surf was up a bit and around on the north side of Fort Jefferson waves were occasionally crashing over the moat wall, which was unnerving. So once around was quite enough.

We all ended up turning in early. We Chicagoans intended to get up for the sunrise over Bush Key.

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Wednesday morning, November 16, 2016, was mostly clear and calm with just a low layer of clouds on the horizon. Sean, Noah, Nick, Juan, and I awoke pre-dawn, wrapped ourselves in our sarongs, and wandered toward Bush Key for the sunrise.

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Coconut Palm

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Bush Key and Long Key

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Video: Sean M. Santos

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Great Blue Heron tracks

Out on Bush Key, we noticed the large tracks made by our Great Blue Heron friend. They were huge, particularly compared to the tiny tracks of the Sanderling army.

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Great Blue Heron tracks

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Great Blue Heron track and Sanderling tracks

Video: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Great Blue Heron

It was an exquisite morning, cool in anticipation of a warm, sunny day.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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As we walked out to the end of Bush Key, we were not alone. A couple of campers from the group that had arrived the previous day were walking out too, a couple dozen yards ahead of us.

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Hermit Crabs. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Conch shell. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Magnificent Frigatebirds

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Magnificent Frigatebirds

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We were out at the eastern end of Bush Key in time to greet the sun.

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Image: Noah Powell

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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(This photograph captures the personalities of each of the four, and a framed copy of it was Sean’s and my Christmas present to the guys.)

Once the sun was up, the birds took to the skies and the shore to begin their morning’s search for breakfast. And we made our way back along the south shore.

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Magnificent Frigatebird

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Magnificent Frigatebird

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Magnificent Frigatebird

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Sanderlings

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Great Blue Heron

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Great Blue Heron

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Brown Pelicans

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Tarpons

Suddenly the tranquility of the water was interrupted by a frenzy of Tarpons. They appeared to be feasting on something and were in turn being scooped up by Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds.

We watched for a bit before continuing back to Garden Key and camp.

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Since we’d be going back to Key West that afternoon, this was our little “goodbye” walk on “Bird Island.”

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2 thoughts on “Dry Tortugas National Park: Sunset and Sunrise Over “Bird Island”

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