Milepost 11-13 If I were to compile a bucket list for nature lovers and history lovers – and adventurers who like to find the most isolated corners of the country, the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson would be on the list. The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of islands in the Gulf of Mexico 68 miles west of Key West. This remote destination is managed by the National Park Service.
It is a great location for nature lovers because of its diverse aquatic life. As an avid snorkeler, I was astounded at the wide range of sea creatures I saw there. Besides the scores of tropical fish, I saw stingrays, spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, reef sharks, lobsters, tarpon, barracudas and of course, sea turtles (tortugas in Spanish).
Fort Jefferson is a massive structure built of bricks, 16 million bricks! In fact, it is said to be the largest brick building in the western hemisphere. It was built over a 20-year period beginning in 1846. The fort was never attacked, and none of its cannons were ever used in battle. One of those guns was capable of firing a cannonball 3 miles!
Probably its foremost claim to fame is that it was used as a military prison and was the place where Dr. Mudd was incarcerated after the assassination of President Lincoln. He was later pardoned after saving many lives in an outbreak of yellow fever at the fort.
There is a small campground on the island in the shadow of the fort, and campers pay a few dollars per night. When I camped there the ocean was almost dead calm and the snorkeling was easy. My friends and I snorkeled all the way around the island in an hour-and-a-half in about 12 feet of water. Then after dark some us returned to the water with a dive light for a nighttime skinny snorkel.
There are a couple of reliable shuttle services that zoom to the islands from Key West with powerful double-hulled catamarans – in only a couple of hours at about 35 knots! If you want to get there even faster, take the sea plane.
A nighttime thunderstorm interrupts the normal summer calm just offshore from Garden Island. A sheltered cove protects boats.