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Tortugas Bound: Exploring Florida's last piece of wilderness - PassageMaker
Exploring Florida's last piece of wilderness
Blue Turtle (right) anchored in the Dry Tortugas.

Blue Turtle (right) anchored in the Dry Tortugas.

In a Key West marina aboard Blue Turtle, our 40-foot DeFever Passagemaker, thoughts race through my mind while lying in bed. Do we have enough water on board? Did we provision enough extra food and supplies in case of bad weather? Did we really fix our generator? Have I downloaded all the recipes I’ll need for the trip? Did I turn on my email autoresponder? In just a few hours we will be cut off from the rest of the world, and that feeling is exhilarating. And a little scary.

Saying that the Dry Tortugas is off the beaten path is an understatement. There are no cell towers, Wi-Fi, or cable TV, fuel, restaurants, shops, or lodging (other than a primitive campground). As the name suggests, there is also no fresh water. You must bring everything you will need to sustain yourself and your crew for the duration of the trip.

This remote group of barren islands are rich in history, relatively untouched by civilization and commercialism, and offer the best of everything in the tropics: snorkeling, diving, fishing, birdwatching, and sunsets. It’s a nature lover’s paradise and a history buff’s dream. Stories of hurricanes, shipwrecks, buried treasure, and pirates make the place feel like it’s right out of Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island.

The Dry Tortugas is great for birdwatching.

The Dry Tortugas is great for birdwatching.

An off-grid National Park

Made up of seven small islands, the Dry Tortugas are located 70 miles west of Key West and 90 miles north of Cuba at the northwest entrance to the Florida Straits. Its coral reefs, abundant with marine life, are the end of the Florida Reef system, the third largest reef in the world. Stretching 221 miles along the state’s southeast coast from Key Biscayne, these reefs end within a few miles of the Gulf Stream where the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea collide.

The small islands, made up of coarse sand, vines, and a few palms, serve as a preserve and breeding ground for 299 species of birds. The surrounding shoals and waters make up Dry Tortugas National Park. With just over 70,000 visits in 2016, it is one of the least-visited parks in the United States National Park Service. One major reason for this is you can only get to it by ferry, seaplane, or private boat. When mentioning our plans to cruise there, we were often greeted with blank stares, jealousy, or concerns about our welfare.

Top-level view of the parade ground, hot shot furnace, and remains of the officers’ quarters and kitchens.

Top-level view of the parade ground, hot shot furnace, and remains of the officers’ quarters and kitchens.

Adding to its intrigue, the Dry Tortugas has served as a military outpost, a prison, a quarantine station, coaling station for warships, and a pirate hideaway. In order to control the navigation on the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. constructed a fort on Garden Key. This 19th-century coastal fortress, named Fort Jefferson, is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas and is composed of more than 16 million bricks. The fort and lighthouse on an adjacent island are the only things that break the horizon. After an 18-hour day on the Gulf of Mexico, it can be a welcoming sight.

Cruising to the Tortugas

The best way to explore the Dry Tortugas is by private vessel. From small sailboats and sportfishing boats to trawlers and motoryachts, boats of all makes, models, and sizes visit the Tortugas. Even smaller center-console boats come out to fish during the day and camp on Garden Key at night. It seems most folks who cruise there stay only a few days, which is most likely due to the weather conditions and their boat’s capacity for water and fuel. Larger trawlers, motoryachts, and other large vessels seem to be better equipped for an extended stay for these reasons.

 Our DeFever at anchor with rental sea kaykas in the foreground. 

 Our DeFever at anchor with rental sea kaykas in the foreground. 

Our trip to the Dry Tortugas aboard Blue Turtle began in early June 2017 from our home port of Fort Myers Beach, Florida. My husband Randy, 13-year-old son Corey, and I have made this trip four years in a row. In past years, we steamed the 120 miles directly to the Dry Tortugas, taking us approximately 18 hours at roughly seven knots. This year, we headed there via a few anchorages in the Florida Keys and then on to Key West. Key West’s colorful, noisy, and lively atmosphere always provides a stark contrast to the isolated and remote world of the Dry Tortugas. Departing from or arriving in Key West after time spent in the Tortugas can often leave you feeling a bit shell-shocked at first. However, both destinations can be a welcoming sight, depending on which direction you are traveling.

With excellent visibility at Davis Rock, huge coral heads and our trawler bottom were always in sight.

With excellent visibility at Davis Rock, huge coral heads and our trawler bottom were always in sight.

If you snorkel, dive, or spearfish, the best time to visit the Dry Tortugas is in the summer. Not only is the water warmer, but the weather patterns are more predictable, giving you windows for smoother seas and better visibility. When it’s calm, it’s like swimming in a giant open-water aquarium accompanied by huge schools of baitfish, stingrays, giant barracuda, goliath groupers, and 200-pound tarpon.

While the winter months provide more comfortable temperatures, which are great for touring the fort, they can also bring more cold fronts with higher winds and seas. Birdwatching appears to be better in the winter months since migration increases substantially. The greatest concentration of birds can be seen in the Tortugas during cold fronts when high winds ground the greatest number of migratory birds.

This year our plan was to stay in the Dry Tortugas for 11 days. Of course, one must always be flexible when traveling by boat. Unfortunately, in early June, the summer weather pattern hadn’t quite developed and we had some weather systems to contend with. Since our weather was looking grim out of Key West, we decided to lay up at the Marquesa Keys, a common spot for anchoring on the way to the Dry Tortugas.

Marquesa Keys are a small chain of mangrove islands located approximately 25 miles west of Key West. A lagoon in the center, thought to be created by a meteor strike, gives the Marquesa Keys the honor of being the only atoll in the Atlantic Ocean. With great visibility, swift currents, and large fish, these keys are considered to be a sportfishing mecca. The Marquesa Keys and Rebecca Shoals both offer considerable protection against rough waters when cruising to or from the Dry Tortugas.

Communication arches leading from one casemate to another provide access through the fort.

Communication arches leading from one casemate to another provide access through the fort.

Arriving

After anchoring for the night at Marquesa Keys, it was time to make the half-day trip to the Dry Tortugas where we had plans to rendezvous with some friends from Fort Myers Beach. Once we arrived at Garden Key, we navigated into the fishbowl-like anchorage near the fort, with water 20 to 30 feet deep, and dropped our anchor onto a coarse sandy bottom.

Shortly after anchoring, we spotted our friends’ 42-foot Leopard catamaran, Sukha, gliding across the clear, aqua-colored water in the anchorage. As they passed us to find an anchoring spot, our friend Chris yelled to us, “I can see why you guys love it here so much.” This being our fourth trip, we can honestly say that we’d visit the Dry Tortugas every year if we could.

Once we launched the dinghy, we went ashore to fill out the boater’s permit, pay the park fee, and check the latest weather update, which is a printed report posted daily at the main dock house. From there we could determine the best possible days to get out on the reefs and when it would be better to stay at Garden Key and explore the fort.

Snorkeling Little Africa

Our weather forecast for the week was not looking great, so we decided our best shot for getting out on the water would be the next day. Later that evening, over dinner and drinks with Sukha and crew, we hashed out a plan to cruise over to Little Africa near Loggerhead Key in the morning aboard the catamaran.

Crystal clear water and beautiful reefs surround the DryundefinedTortugas Light on Loggerhead Key. 

Crystal clear water and beautiful reefs surround the DryundefinedTortugas Light on Loggerhead Key. 

Loggerhead Key, located three miles from Garden Key, is the largest island in the Dry Tortugas. Named for the abundance of loggerhead sea turtles there, this island is also the location of a 19th-century lighthouse used to warn mariners off the shallow reef. It has also been home to a cutting-edge marine research laboratory, a site of shipwrecks, and common landing spot for Cuban refugees. Just off the northwest side lies Little Africa, a beautiful shallow-water reef full of marine life. With the protection from the southeast winds that morning, we snorkeled in flat-calm water and had amazing visibility as we saw a beautiful reef teeming with various species of tropical fish, large colorful coral heads, and giant barracuda and tarpon.

After snorkeling Little Africa, we decided to check out the Brick Wreck, which is another shallow-water reef near the Garden Key anchorage. The Brick Wreck, also known as Bird Key Wreck, is located in four to six feet of water and is thought to be a 126-foot steamer that was driven into the shallow water on Bird Key Bank. It carried a cargo of two types of bricks: yellow bricks used to build major parts of the fort and refractory bricks used to line the ship’s firebox. Visibility at this wreck isn’t typically as great as other reefs in the park; however, it is usually loaded with fish. You know you’ve found the wreck when you see the six-foot, four-blade wrought iron propeller still intact on the sandy bottom.

Exploring Garden Key and Fort Jefferson

With winds forecasted at 15 to 20 knots and seas five to seven feet by midweek, Sukha and crew decided to head to Key West where they would meet up with the rest of their crew members. This new weather forecast made it clear that our next few days would be spent exploring Garden Key and Fort Jefferson.

Corey catches a keeper yellowtail snapper with Fort Jefferson in the background.

Corey catches a keeper yellowtail snapper with Fort Jefferson in the background.

At about 41 acres in size, Garden Key is the second largest island in the Dry Tortugas. Aside from being the location of Fort Jefferson, it is also home to park headquarters, a visitor center, campgrounds, and excellent snorkeling areas. There are plenty of things to do on Garden Key and within the anchorage area, including visiting the beaches, kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, wandering through Fort Jefferson and around the perimeter alongside the moat. If you look up while exploring Garden Key, you’ll spot magnificent frigatebirds gliding across the sky like pterodactyls and hear thousands of migratory seabirds like the sooty tern, brown noddy, and masked booby at nearby Bush Key.

Spending a full day at anchor near Garden Key will intimately acquaint you with the ferry and seaplane schedule. Quiet mornings become interrupted by seaplanes flying overhead and scores of people filing off the ferry. The place gets more lively as the day progresses, but you can count on the stillness of the early mornings and late evenings after the ferry leaves.

Seaplanes full of tourists take off and land all day long in Garden Key.

Seaplanes full of tourists take off and land all day long in Garden Key.

Even with the ferry there, Fort Jefferson really doesn’t seem that crowded. Its massive six-sided structure has three levels, with a huge 8-acre parade ground inside. It was the largest and most sophisticated of the Third System coastal forts that began to be built following the War of 1812. Though it was never completed, Fort Jefferson served many purposes through the years. During the Civil War, it remained in Union hands and was used in their campaign to blockade Confederate shipping. It also served as a military prison mainly for Union deserters but also for the famous civilian prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was arrested for conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln. Later abandoned by the Army, it was used as a quarantine station for the Marine Hospital Service, as well as a coaling station for warships.

There’s plenty to explore within Fort Jefferson, and you can spend an entire day wandering the brick archways, learning about the history and imagining what life there would have been like while it was being built. It seems that every year we visit, we discover something new about Fort Jefferson. This year, we were surprised that we hadn’t previously noticed the hotshot furnace, a large brick structure used to heat cannonballs that were fired at wooden ships in hopes of setting them on fire.

Corey, Randy, and Sophie stop to pose on the mote wall while touring the perimeter of the fort.

Corey, Randy, and Sophie stop to pose on the mote wall while touring the perimeter of the fort.

A hike up to the top level of the fort provides a breathtaking panorama of the fort’s parade ground, Garden Key, adjacent Bush Key, and Loggerhead Key in the distance. Surrounded by varying shades of aqua water, you literally feel like you’re in a remote paradise. As you walk along the top perimeter, you may want to watch your step as there are no handrails. Upon asking a park ranger if anyone had ever fallen from the top, we were told that there had been four falls but no deaths.

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Snorkeling around the fort and Garden Key is equally amazing as Little Africa. If you follow the moat wall you will see beautiful corals and sea fans attached to the bricks, colorful parrotfish, barracuda, and huge pods of baitfish and the giant tarpon that feed on them. The abandoned coal docks located on the north and south sides of the island also reveal large schools of reef fish and snapper, crabs tucked into tight spots, and goliath grouper as large as your dinghy.

Let’s go diving!

After three days at the anchorage, we finally got a break in our weather to get out on the water and hit some dive spots. Most of the reefs suitable for diving within the park’s boundaries are marked with mooring balls. This not only makes them easier to find but also easier to visit since you don’t have to anchor. We decided first to visit a group of three dive sites that are near each other: Off Ramp, Davis Rock, and Texas Rock. We’d dived at all these spots in past years and all are excellent. We decided to skip Off Ramp, a nice dive of 20 to 25 feet, and opt for the other two this year.

Off Ramp, a dive site we have visited in years past.

Off Ramp, a dive site we have visited in years past.

Up first was Davis Rock. With depths of 20 to 45 feet, it offers much to see—large cone-shape coral heads jutting out from the bottom, a goliath grouper, and a couple of small reef sharks. After Davis Rock, we moved to Texas Rock, which is one of the deeper dives in the Dry Tortugas and sits in about 60 feet of water. There are huge coral heads, large crevices, and swim-throughs teeming with schools of grunts, yellowtail snapper, colorful tangs, and parrotfish. We spotted the occasional queen and grey angelfish, a spotted eel and porcupinefish.

In contrast to any of the reefs in the Florida Keys, where you have to share one reef with many tour boats and private vessels, most the time in the Dry Tortugas you are the only boat there and the only people in the water. It’s the best of everything: the greatest visibility and most pristine reefs—and you have it all to yourself.

After our two dives, we headed to the Tortugas Bank so the guys could try some spearfishing. The Tortugas Bank is located about 11 miles from Garden Key and is the closest spot to there where you can spearfish since it lies outside of the park boundaries. The reef is marked by several mooring balls and we tied up to one named “Awesome.” As the name suggests, this dive turned out to be just that. Randy surfaced with a nice 23-inch hogfish and Corey with a 25-inch red grouper. This was the perfect way to end an amazing day on the water in paradise.

Homeward Bound

The sun sets on the Gulf of Mexico near the south coalingundefineddocks. 

The sun sets on the Gulf of Mexico near the south coalingundefineddocks. 

While this year’s trip to the Tortugas was plagued by unpredictable weather and several days of high winds, we still had an amazing time. After eight days in the Tortugas, we pulled anchor and headed once again to the Marquesas to take refuge from wind and high seas before returning the next day to Key West.

Once we were in range of cellphone service, radio chatter, and tour boats zigzagging through the main channel of Key West, we were already missing the calm and quiet of the Dry Tortugas. There, time almost stands still—and things that seem so important back home, in civilization, don’t even register among the salt air and wildlife you observe while watching the sun melt into the Gulf of Mexico. 

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