An island strategically placed between Florida and 19th century Civil War shipping routes, is the historical background for an unequalled visit where beauty and history meet at - Ft. Jefferson
Dry Tortugas National Park
There are two ways to travel to Dry Tortugas. The National Parks Service catamaran is the Yankee Freedom III. During this 2.5 hour ferry ride you take a magical tour over turquoise waters where you can see porpoise, turtles and other fish along the journey. As you approach the inlet on Dry Tortugas, you will see an old dock submerged with remains of the upper dock sticking out of the water, sea airplanes awaiting the return of their touring passengers and private sailboats moored in the harbor. After arrival, you can expect to spend 4 - 5 hours on the island during a day trip. ($175 per person) If you prefer to fly to Dry Tortugas, the flight is 40 minutes but most of these tours only allow 2 -3 hours on the island. (Approximately $300 per person)
I had the pleasure of meeting up with friends on Big Pine Key, FL to take a full day excursion aboard the Yankee Freedom III, a state-of-the-art catamaran departing from Key West, FL with destination at Ft. Jefferson National Park. It is an enjoyable and leisurely scenic "must-do" that cruises 70 miles off the Florida coast and into the Gulf of Mexico. We felt privileged to cruise by majestic views normally enjoyed by private boats or yachts and to learn about the surroundings by our on-board naturalist. He was our guide the entire day and he was absolutely terrific!
Listening to someone who is passionate about history describe what it must have been like to travel to this remote location; especially for the men who built the 19th century Fort, made all the difference in the world for me. By the way, this is no simple fort. Ft. Jefferson's inner arena is so large, it is said that any modern day sports stadium could easily fit in the middle of it. The fort, like the rest of the surrounding areas is immense and just hard to put to mind until you see it, and then it's still difficult to understand how soldiers and inmates were able to survive there. 19th century plumbing, (thus the moat surrounding the fort), no fresh water to drink (thus the term "Dry" in Dry Torutgas) AND infectious insects, birds, lizards and all other types of amphibious creatures.
As our guide led us through the fort you could honestly imagine what it might have been like for those who were incarcerated there. One such notable inmate was Dr. Mudd, an famous historical figure who attended to John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after his fall in Ford's Theatre and following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, April 1865. Dr. Mudd spent 4 years at Ft. Jefferson and was only released by President Johnson after the doctor was recognized for the successful treatment of many inmates afflicted with Yellow Fever. He is renown as the person who identified the cause of the disease and it's control.
An infamous inmate, Samuel Bland Arnold, Lincoln assassination-conspirator once called the Dry Tortugas islands, “Without exception... the most horrible place the eye of man ever set upon.”
But for others like, John James Audubon who visited the island in 1932, he remarked that he felt as if the birds would raise me from the ground, there were so many of them. Most birders have taken note. This part is one of the top birding destinations in North America. The local fish that swim around the reefs are a popular meal for frigate birds. Every September, 100,000 sooty terns nest here. The island is also home to visitors such as the rare balk noody, red-footed boobies and golden warblers. There are 300 species of birds that live here, many year round. Even if you’re not an avid birder they’re still a spectacular addition to the scenery.
So don't wait too long to tour this national park and civil war fort because it's a park that may not be around very long. Climate change has taken its toll. Some of the seven surrounding islands are now merely half the size they once were. As seas continue to rise, the land will continue to disappear. If you want to see it make some plans to go soon.
Starry, starry night
If you are bit more adventurous, Garden Key the home of Ft. Jefferson has one campground. It has 10 make shift, first-come, first-served campsites. Eight are individual, one group and one grassy area. All sites come with some of the most incredible sunsets and stargazing you'll ever see all for only $15 per site, per night. There is a 3-night maximum stay if you arrive by ferry, or 14 days if you come via private boat. Ferries have space for 10 campers each way, but seaplanes won't carry camping gear.
When it's best to visit
Summer brings the calmest waters. This makes for the clearest water and best snorkeling/diving. Summer is also when the sea turtles come on land and lay their eggs. It's hot. The days are around 90 degrees on average June - September with an increased chance of rain. This is the best time. October brings cooler temperatures and also choppier waters, making for more unpleasant ferry rides and less visibility when snorkeling or diving.