Dry Tortugas

Two days before ARVO, four of us decided to visit Dry Tortugas National Park.  Drew, Felix, Scott and I flew into KeyWest to make a quick trip out to Ft. Jefferson, spend a night then drive back up to Ft. Lauderdale for ARVO.  Unfortunately, the goal of camping in the Tortugas was cut short a few weeks earlier when we discovered that only a *very* limited number of campers could travel out to Ft. Jefferson each day and the transport was booked.  I had spoken with a park service employee who informed me that there were always spaces for campers, but what she neglected to inform me of was that only 8 campers at a time could be transported on the ferry and it was booked.  Also, the sea planes do not take campers either, so we were limited to a day trip which will have to be rectified next year, the last year ARVO will be in Ft. Lauderdale.


We gathered at the pier the morning of our day trip and boarded the Yankee Freedom for the ~70 nm trip out to Ft. Jefferson.  The fare was a little steep, but diesel fuel has gotten expensive and breakfast and lunch is provided.  The ferry takes out 120 some odd folks to visit the park and had birders, people snorkeling, tourists from a surprising number of countries and us.


Fort Jefferson was designed to prevent the Tortugas anchorage from suffering a naval attack and was constructed to be 3 tiers holding over 400 guns built from 16 million bricks on a 10 acre sand bar with no fresh water, 500 miles away from sources of bricks and lumber in Pensacola and 1,400 miles away from sources of stone and cement in New York.  A formidable task indeed.  Also, notably, Fort Jefferson was the Army Corps of Engineers very first construction that was built below sea level.



The guns are/were pretty impressive with two sizes in the fort.  The guns were 8 and 10 inch smoothbore cannons weighing 9,210 and 15,400 lbs respectively.  While the 8-inch gun could lob a 65 lb ball approximately a mile away, the 10 inch gun could deliver a 128 pound cannonball more than 3 miles away.



Ft. Jefferson’s design was intended to collect rainwater in over 109 cisterns underneath the bottom floor casemates with a total capacity of 1.5 million gallons.  Unfortunately, as the foundations settled, the cisterns cracked allowing ocean water to leak in.  This necessitated bringing in steam condensers to distill potable water from the ocean, provided they had fuel to run the boilers.


While Ft. Jefferson was considered a not unhealthy place to be stationed, the hospital at the Fort did treat 86% of the men stationed there.  Most of the treatments were for dysentery and fever likely due to yellow fever contracted from Aedes aegypti.  In fact, it was yellow fever that caused the death of the post’s surgeon Dr. Joseph Smith which led to the Fort’s most notorious resident taking his job.  Though not originally intended as a prison, it become one for some.  A notable case was Dr. Samuel Mudd who was imprisoned here after aiding and conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Mudd was shackled to the wall 12hrs out of every 24 during working days and on Sundays and holidays.  While not shackled to the wall, Dr. Mudd worked as the post’s doctor taking over the vacated post of Dr. Smith.  In his capacity, Dr. Mudd ended up helping many soldiers stationed here and caring for those who were injured or fell to disease.  Mudd was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on February 8th, 1869 and he left Fort Jefferson on March 11th of that year.


The fort was eventually abandoned before it was ever finished.  Currently the Department of the Interior is working to stabilize and restore the fort as the primary cultural feature of Dry Tortugas National Park.  The work will take years to finish, but the goal is to preserve the structure for posterity and correct safety issues for park employees and visitors to the park.



Of course there are the birds in the Dry Tortugas.  I saw brown noddys, brown pelicans, black noddys, magnificent frigate birds, masked boobys, sooty terns, cormorants, cattle egrets, ruddy turnstones, cliff swallows, laughing gulls, royal terns, American redstarts and many more.  I’ll post more bird pics in the coming days in the bird category of Jonesblog with some of the better photographs of them.  Some folks come from around the world to go birding here as there are some opportunities to see rare birds… I hope to come back next year and spend more time.


The other reason to come is for the sealife.  Even walking around Ft. Jefferson, you can see an abundance of tropical fish just from the walkway, but the best way to see them is to get into the water and snorkel around the fort.  Within 30 seconds of getting in the water, we saw a 6ft tarpon flash past.  We saw angelfish, parrot fish, jacks, damsels, wrasses, barracuda, urchins, sea cucumbers, turtles, sand dollars, crabs, hard and soft corals, groupers, sea bass and many, many other species in just an hour or so of snorkeling around the fort.


One of the really exciting things we got to see was a bait ball.  I actually heard it before seeing it, but we looked off the fort to see a group of dolphins swimming rapidly around a school of fish, forming them into a tight ball.  The dolphins would then swim through the ball to feed on high densities of fish.  I would have given just about anything to see this from underneath the water…  It was the first time I’d ever seen a bait ball and was absolutely transfixed.



Unfortunately, time passed pretty quick and we had to head back to the Yankee Freedom II for the ride home.  Once on board and underway, Drew and Felix passed out pretty quick while Scott and I hung out on the deck watching an amazing display of flying fish.  I had no idea they could fly that far, though if you read nautical reports or talk to anyone who sails, they relate stories of flying fish showing up on deck, sometimes many feet above the water line.


We are all very much looking forward to coming back next year to the Tortugas, this time to camp overnight.  We felt awfully rushed and unfortunately, I did not get to make the photographs I had wanted.  If the circumstances and weather treat us right, I hope to bring back more photos after next years trip.



11 Replies to “Dry Tortugas”

  1. Great Blog…I’ve been out to Dry T only once..and what a great experance it was..so much I’m going back this March. Hope to do less snorkeling and more sight seeing of the Fort :)

  2. Thans for posting the pictures and supplying information.
    I am reading a novel that takes place in this setting and being able to see examples of the structures and the varieties of marine life helps bring it to mind’s eye.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *