By Jeff Klinkenberg
The Dry Tortugas National Park, a series of islands 70 miles from Key West, is a place of great beauty, history and solitude.
For some of us, it’s a poem of waving palms, seabirds and turquoise fish. For others, it’s where soldiers who served in a fort named for Thomas Jefferson sweated and bled and died. For introspective sorts, it’s something like Florida’s Walden, a place for sitting and meditating and asking yourself questions. How would you, a 21st-century pilgrim, survive in a place where time is meaningless?
There’s no road to Dry Tortugas. You take a boat or seaplane, but only if weather permits. You can camp near Fort Jefferson on the island called Garden Key, but don’t forget the can opener because the nearest convenient store is a long way off. You can visit for the day, but again be prepared for whatever. This is a special, isolated park where the screeching birds and the breeze rustling through the treetops provide the soundtrack. About 60,000 tourists visit annually. In comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts 11 million visitors who jam the road with their vehicles.
Ponce de Leon was the first European to describe these islands. The Spaniard who had named the North American continent “La Florida” in 1513 also named the islands. The conquistadors had stopped to gather birds, eggs and turtles for food. “La Isla de Tortugas,’’ Ponce called the island of turtles. Later, mariners added one more word to the charts: “Dry.’’ The only drinking water obtainable came from rain puddles.
Now there are restrooms and even a couple of water fountains and an air-conditioned gift shop crowded in summer. But otherwise, there’s hardly a hint of modernity in the Dry Tortugas, meaning your cellphone won’t work, which also means you won’t be able to Tweet about your experience until later. Salute the park rangers who live in Fort Jefferson these days, often for months at a time. They are throwbacks to an earlier era, a special breed.
The ferry from Key West charges around $175 to bring you to the Tortugas. It’s a beautiful 2½-hour trip through green water in which you might spot a passing shark, ray or sea turtle. On a windy day, if the ferry makes the trip, bring your sea legs.
Booking a seat on the seaplane tour, a $300 extravagance, means you’ll be walking down the beach in only 45 minutes. When I have the money, I fly. I bring all I need with me. Drinking water. Sunscreen. A mask and snorkel. I am never without my curiosity.
On the tour, you’ll learn that construction on Fort Jefferson began in 1845. It was meant to be a federal installment for ships that would patrol the Gulf of Mexico. During the Civil War the fort was a staging place for Navy ships assigned to blocking Confederate ports.
It’s enormous, the octagonal-shaped fort. Four sides are 477 feet long. Two are 325 feet. The 45-foot high walls overlook a moat 70 feet wide. A lighthouse reaches 155 feet into the sky.
Sixteen million bricks were used in a construction project never quite completed. Two hundred arches hold up the interior. Cisterns collected 1,500,000 gallons of rainwater. More than 400 heavy guns took aim at the sea. Thousands of forgotten workers, among them slaves at one point, provided the hard labor.
As a tourist, it’s easy to regard the Dry Tortugas as a tropical playground. Wading into the water, adjusting my mask, I watch mangrove snapper, barracuda and the wiggling antennae of a spiny lobster hiding in the crack of a seawall.
For birdwatchers, the Tortugas are a world treasure. In 1832, John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and artist, fell in love on first sight. “On landing I felt for a moment as if the birds would raise me from the ground so thick were they all around, and so quick the motion of their wings,’’ he wrote. “Their cries were deafening.’’
In the 21st century sometimes you still may need to cover your ears. The Tortugas are the only place in the continental United States where endangered sooty terns nest. The only known nesting colony of magnificent frigate birds is also found in the park. In the summer, they patrol the skies over Fort Jefferson and seem as interested in the tourists below as we are watching them soaring above.
In the spring, when migrating birds from Cuba, Central America and South America are heading north, they often stop for a rest on the islands of the Tortugas. I have friends who have witnessed what they call “the fallout,’’ the days when exhausted birds seem to be tumbling out of the air by the minute. Hundreds of panting hummingbirds gather strength while perched on a single gumbo limbo tree. Peregrine falcons take positions on the fort walls to rest their wings.
I’m a nature boy who loves my birds and fish. But I’m also a city guy who enjoys a hot meal and an air-conditioned bedroom at night. So I’m curious. What would it be like to live in the Tortugas? Would it be paradise or prison?
We have some clues. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was home to hundreds of soldiers and prisoners who suffered boredom to go along with chronic malnutrition. The day the supply ship arrived from Key West with Key limes was cause for celebration, since citrus prevented scurvy. From October through March the climate was pleasantly balmy and tolerable. The next six months, alas, provided the challenge. Wrote a prisoner: “The heat was intense, the silence oppressive beyond description.’’
The most famous prisoner was the unlucky Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth after he murdered President Abraham Lincoln and broke a leg during his escape. In 1865, the innocent Mudd was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life at hard labor at Fort Jefferson.
In 1867, when most people didn’t understand the danger posed by mosquitoes, a yellow fever epidemic swept through the fort, sickening half of its 800 inhabitants. The ill were evacuated to a nearby island, now known as Hospital Key, but people continued to die, including the fort’s doctor. Prisoner Mudd, who volunteered to treat the sick and dying, was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.
Fort Jefferson, you will learn on a tour, served the Union during the Spanish-American War and World War I. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Fort Jefferson a National Monument. In 1942, the park superintendent complained in a letter about his diet: “Anything can become monotonous in time, and did you ever try eating lobster two or three times a day or several weeks?” He tried planting a garden, to introduce something green, but the land crabs ate the vegetables.
On the flight back to Key West, as I watch the sea below for turtles, I think about last night’s dinner, broiled lobster. I wasn’t bored at all.
When you go…
Dry Tortugas National Park