Four days and three nights in the Dry Tortugas

Dad, my sister Sharon, and me

Part of this was posted in a previous blog that is no longer available. I added more information to include the entire trip and am reposting it. In late April 2018, my father, sister, and I made this trip to the Dry Tortugas, which sit 68 miles west of Key West. There are no services on the island and it’s primitive camping. We brought kayaks with us along with everything we needed (including water). Thankfully, as a ferry makes it way to the islands every day, we could buy ice at an inflated price. We could also buy ice cream aboard the ferry!

Most of us camping on Garden Key stand together on the beach watching the light fade from the western sky. The skies are clear and the water surrounding the Key and Fort Jefferson ripple from the southerly wind. There’s a group of four women from South Florida along with several bird watchers from around the country. Soon a star appears in the southwest, Sirius, the Dog Star as well as Venus just above the horizon in the West. A few minutes later, the sky is darker. Rigel and Betelgeuse, the red star in Orion, are visible. “There’s Orion, setting early after having been up high all winter,” I say as I point out the stars. Soon we can make out the stars in Orion’s belt. In the spring, it appears as if the hunter is falling face-first out of the sky. In a few minutes, all the stars of Orion and his faithful dog, Canis Major, are clearly visible as is as well as the charioteer, Auriga, the V in Taurus the Bull, as well as the Seven Sisters, who according to mythology look out for travelers.  

Moored sailboats and the setting sun

We’re all travelers, enjoying a few days 70 miles from civilization. There are no signals on our cell phones and no way, unless someone brought a satellite hookup, to connect to the internet. I look back over my head to the northeast, I see the Big Dipper climbing higher in the sky. From it, I can easily find the North Star, low on the northern horizon, just above the ramparts of the fort. I point it out to the group.

How you know so much about the stars and night skies, one of the women from Miami asks. 

“I don’t know,” I say, “I just like spending time outdoors, especially at night.”  

My father checking out the terns (or was it the other way around?)

Slowly people drift back to their tents. It’s been a tiring day as my sister, father and I had gotten up at 4:30 AM, in order to have our gear and kayaks by the ferry at 6 AM for the run from Key West to the Tortugas. Then there was setting up camp for our three nights on the island, followed by a cooling snorkel around the outside of the fort’s moot. By then, it was time for dinner and then we went out for an evening paddle. We’d taken our kayaks out by Bush Key, where tens of thousands of Snooty Terns nest. The key now connected to Garden Key, but the park service has it closed off so as not to disturb the birds, which seem never to nest but mostly to fly around the key and out over the water, constantly chirping with one another. On Long Key, frigates nest. These large birds are as graceful as any navy frigate and the males, who puff up a red pouch under their head to attract females can strut better than any sailor on shore leave.  

I crawl into my bivy tent. The wind is blowing hard and the tarp, which we erected to protect us from the tropic sun, flaps constantly.  I am soon asleep.

Bush and Long Key from the walls of Fort Jefferson

I arise at 6:30.  The eastern sky is bright red.  My sister has already started the charcoal in my stove and boiled water for her tea.  I put coffee and water in my camping percolator and in a few minutes can see the water turn into dark black coffee.  When Dad gets up, we have breakfast. I’ve brought oatmeal. My sister has boiled eggs and precooked bacon and grits. We cut up some fruit and split it between us.

Our plan is to paddle to Loggerhead Key, which is located three miles to the west of Garden Key, the location of a long standing lighthouse (that went dark in 2014 and is no longer in use).  We pack lunches and snorkel gear. I have a marine radio, but the rangers insist we take at least one more and loan my sister one. Although the tide doesn’t vary much here (just a foot to eighteen inches) it does create a flow that runs the channel between the two keys, so we are warned to watch for currents. Unless a fog rolls in, which doesn’t seem likely in this weather, we’ll not have any problem as long as we stay focused on the Loggerhead lighthouse which rises 150 feet above the small strip of land.  The wind is still strong and coming out of the south, which requires us to paddle harder than normal.

About a quarter way to the island, my sister complains of her hands hurting and decides to go back to Garden Key. We were told that on a calm day it’d take an hour to paddle to the island and generally two hours to paddle back.  My dad and I keep paddling. It takes us almost an hour to paddle the three miles to Loggerhead, but that’s with a strong wind coming in at an angle, creating some swell. 

We arrive at Loggerhead Key at the same time as two guys on a dingy from their sailboat to the island. Like me, they have come to snorkel. Soon, we run into the lighthouse keeper. He has volunteered to stay on the island and watch over those who visit for a month. The park service provides him a home with electricity (they have huge panels of solar cells).  He checks in with visitors (he provided us with tips on where to snorkel), and operates a water desalination system that provides water to rangers in the Tortugas. He’s responsible for his own food.  

We walk across the island and snorkel on the west side. He points out some places to check out. We are blessed with seeing huge growths of brain coral along with large aquatic plants. I love the huge purple sea fans that half my size. I see plenty of fish: angelfish, butterflyfish, a variety of snapper and grouper, the seemingly ubiquitous “Sergeant Majors”, and several large barracuda. Hiding inside hollow parts of the coral are long-spined sea urchin.  After an hour and a half of snorkeling (my dad gave it up much earlier), I join him on the beach for lunch (Vienna sausage, cheese and crackers, a pear, and plenty of water).  After lunch, I go back out and snorkel for another 40 minutes or so, before packing up and heading across the island to our kayaks.  

Snorkeling off Loggerhead Key
Selfie, paddling back

We leave at 1 PM.  The wind has calmed, and the paddle back is easy. We don’t rush. It only takes us a little over an hour and fifteen minutes, well less than the two hours we were told to expect.  We make it back in time to buy some ice and ice cream on the ferry (it leaves at 2:45 PM).  After resting, I join my sister with snorkeling around the fort.  The wind dies and the squawk of terns replace the sound of the flapping tarp. We enjoy steak for dinner. We froze the steaks and let them thaw in the cooler. We also have steamed cauliflower I’d brought from my garden. I am sure I’m the only person on this key eating homegrown cauliflower. 

I spend some time in the late afternoon and evening inside the fort, finding a shady spot, where I read and journal. It’s been a long day and shortly after sunset, I’m in bed. There is no wind and it’s warm. I lay on top of my sleeping bag and fall asleep.  

Campsite from the walls of the fort

Nature calls at 5 AM, and I crawl out of my tent to take care of business. The ground is soaked with a heavy dew. As I look up at the morning stars. The summer constellations are out and they are not generally this bright, but without any artificial light, the sky is brilliant. I easily spot Scorpius. It’s much higher above the southern horizon than I am accustomed to seeing it. At higher latitude, the constellation is only partly seen above the southern horizon. This morning, its pinchers are reaching out as if to grab Jupiter. To the left of the scorpion is the winged-horse archer, Sagittarius. Its arrow drawn and aimed at the deadly cosmic insect. Mars and Saturn appear to be resting on its wings. I’m treated to three planets in close proximity. There is no wind, but there is no silence either. I don’t think any of the terns on Bush Key slept last night. I crawl back into my tent and snooze for another hour.

Sharon Snorkeling

On the second full day on the island, we spend time snorkeling and paddle around the three keys. On this trip, I spot several turtles from where the islands get their name (Tortugas is turtle in Spanish). The dry part of the name was added to charts to indicate to seafarers the lack of fresh water on the islands. 

We also see a wreck sailboat that broke apart between Bush and Long Key. I later learned from a ranger that the owner of the boat had decided not to ride out a hurricane in Key West and tried to sail it single handed to the protected waters of the Tortugas. Because of the approach of the storm, the rangers had been evacuated, but there were several fishing boats moored in the natural harbor south of the fort. They saw him coming in, trying to make a channel between the keys, which had filled in. Sadly, the sailor had an old chart. He lost everything and one of the fishing crews rescued him, saving his life.

Fish fry

On the way back, Sharon and I snorkel offshore, looking for an old shipwreck. We don’t find it, but do see some nursing sharks, of which the island is famous. We also trade for some fish with a commercial fishing operator who is cleaning his fish just offshore.  That evening, we have fresh fish, enough that we share with others camping on the island.

On our last full day on the island, we do more snorkeling. I also spend several hours going through Fort Jefferson. Building the fort began in 1835. Its purpose was to support a Southern fleet protecting the ports of Mobile and New Orleans. During the Civil War, the north quickly garrisoned soldiers on the island keeping it from falling into Southern hands. Up until this time, those on the key were construction workers including many slaves. Work continued on the fort, as they brought in bricks from New England. The lower part of the fort had bricks from Florida, which are a pale orange color. The top bricks are redder. 

Also During the Civil War, the army added canons, which were never fired. The fort’s main use was as a prison. The fort was built upon a series of cisterns in which rain was collected. This was to allow the fort to withstand a siege (they also could grow vegetables inside the walls of the fort). However, the weight of the bricks cracked the walls of the cisterns. Only three cisterns could be used as salt water infiltrated the rest. Another design flaw was the moot. Like other similar forts (such as Fort Pulaski near Savannah), the sewage dumped into the moot and flushed during high tide. However, the closer one gets to the equator, the less tidal difference one has, so the sewage just sat and never completely washed out, creating a terrible stench (thankfully, the National Park Service no longer uses the moot to handle sewage). The last design flaw were the bricks that made up the fort. While these forts proved strong against round cannonballs, the introduction of rifled canons just before the Civil War made the fort less safe. Construction halted in 1875. The fort was never completed. 

Fort view from waterline

But the fort didn’t stay abandoned long. Before the Century was out, the navy maintained a coaling station on the island. They also operated a large desalination plant for fresh water for navy ships and personnel on the island. However, this was short lived as the navy abandoned its coal burning ships for oil burners. 

In the afternoon a three-some of peregrine falcons show up, perched on the fort’s ramparts. Obviously, there is one too many and there seems to be some kind of courting ritual going on. Their presence, however, affects the behavior of other birds around us. When they take to the air, the birds around our campsite hang close to the ground, even flying under the picnic table where I sit. I suppose we are of less threat to them than to be attacked in mid-flight by a hungry falcon.

Ferry from Key West

Out last day was busy as we had to have everything back at the ship by 10:30 AM, so that they could load everything. Thankfully, the ferry also had freshwater showers which allowed us to clean up before the trip back to Key West. We had four beautiful sunny days on the island.  

17 thoughts on “Four days and three nights in the Dry Tortugas”

  1. Thank you for this account of a wonderful trip to the Dry Tortugas, Jeff! How lovely that you could spend this special time with your father and sister. I would love to see the Dry Torugas. I likely never will, but that’s okay. I’m at a place in my life where I am grateful for all that I’ve seen and done. Whatever else I see and do is icing on the cake. Have a great week!

    • This post is about 1/3 longer than the first I did. In the first, I only covered the first 24 hours on the island thinking I would do a second, but I never got around to it.

    • It was exactly primitive as their were latrines (which a large boat would pump out every few days and, I supposed, haul back to Key West to process. Also, when the ferry was docked, you were allowed to use their showers (outdoors, but it let you get the salt water off). But you had to have everything you needed with you. The “trading post” in the fort did sale some candy, but mostly books and t-shirts. The ferry, which was on the island for 4 1/2 hours a day, did sale ice and snacks.

    • Yes, the skies were very dark and the stars stood out. However, I woke one night trying to figure out the constellation on the horizon and thinking some of the stars were incredibly bright–then realized they were mooring lights on sailboats!

    • These shots was taken on an inexpensive Fuji camera that is waterproof to 20 feet–not a camera to scuba dive with but great for snorkeling.

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