By John Frederick
Approaching Dry Tortugas, the first thing you notice is the immense brick structure called Fort Jefferson. Two stories high with alcoves, arches, and walkways. It is so big that the little cay it’s built on isn’t big enough to hold it and it creeps out into the clear blue water. This 19th century American coastal fort was built to control the Florida Straits from marauding pirates from Key West or Cuba. This fort is solid evidence of “military intelligence.” How is an immovable pile of bricks supposed to scare a movable ship? Construction began in 1846 and was rendered obsolete shortly thereafter when some Frenchman invented the rifled cannon. These new cannonballs would penetrate brick as though it were butter.
During the Civil War it became a Union military prison for captured deserters. The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth by setting his broken leg after shooting Lincoln. Dr. Mudd later helped to control an outbreak of yellow fever that affected the prisoners, the military troops, and their families. Dr. Mudd was granted a pardon a few years later. The U.S. Army abandoned the fort in 1874.
Ponce de Leon first discovered these small islands in 1513. He found plenty of turtles but nada agua. Hence the name Dry Tortugas appeared on early maps of the Florida Straits. Sea turtles and bird eggs were hunted until the area was first protected in the early 1900s by the formation of a national wildlife refuge. In 1935 Franklin Roosevelt set aside the seven islands comprising the Dry Tortugas as a National Monument. In 1992 it was redesignated as a National Park.
To reach Dry Tortugas you can get on a motorized catamaran in Key West from the Fort Jefferson Ferry Service. It is an all-day trip and is reasonably priced. The main advantage is that you get free snorkeling gear as part of the price, plus drinks are available on the way back and you meet interesting folks from all over the world. There are seaplane charters available that are more expensive, but much quicker.
You can also sail your yacht to the area. There is a campground and you need to make reservations from the National Park Service. Along with your camping gear you must bring your own water; it is a requirement. Dry Tortugas, remember? Bird and wildlife watching, picnicking, sport fishing, snorkeling, and swimming are conveniently located everywhere. There is a Visitor’s Center with books and gifts. Guided tours are available of the fort. It has also been reported that there are beautiful sunsets.
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