San Rafael Valley, AZ ~~ Photo by Bill Haas

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Up at 6:00 A.M.; the ferry started boarding at 7:15.  I found a parking spot five blocks away.  Puff, huff, puff... made it, settled in, opened the bag I had packed the night before. No camera. OMG! How could this be? What was I NOT thinking?!! I had that little earstwhile underwater "camera" with me, but not my "real" camera.  Disaster! Cold sweat! Kodak disposable cameras with a "process by" 6/08 date were sold on the ferry. Whew!  This will just have to do -- better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick!  So, with a Brownie-style camera in hand, we're now going to visit Dry Tortugas!
The two-hour, open-ocean voyage from Key West to this remote park was uneventful. The tour of Fort Jefferson, the park's most prominent feature, and history of the islands was fascinating.  The snorkeling was lackluster compared to other locales. The crystal clear water, however, was its usual soothing and salubrious 80 degrees.
Iron, coral-encrusted coaling dock ruins poked out of the water as we arrived at the South end of the island -- OK snorkeling in and around them.
Dry Tortugas is comprised of  seven low islands in about 100 square miles; all but one are uninhabited.  Spanish explorers named the islands Las Tortugas because of the sizeable turtle population that once grazed in the area's vast undersea seagrass meadows.  As time went by, the name of the island group eventually appeared on nautical charts as "Dry" Tortugas because of the complete absence of fresh water on any of them. 

Construction of Fort Jefferson by the Army Corps of Engineers was begun in the mid-1800's; 20% of the workforce was comprised of African American slaves who labored under countless hardships.  By 1865 African Americans returned to the fort, not as enslaved laborers but as free soldiers.  
The moat served two purposes:  it acted as an open sewer that had a sluice gate to flush and clear it with the tides, and it was the first line of defense in protecting the fortress from the the ravages of storms.  Now it's home to water plants and tropical fish.
The fort was strategically located in one of the world's then-busiest shipping lanes between the Gulf Coast and the Eastern seaboard. Although it was never completed, never armed and never attacked, it did serve as a Union military prison for deserters and did imprison the men complicit in Lincoln's assassination.  During its peak, it had a military population of over 1700 officers and enlisted personnel; add to that families, lighthouse keepers, cooks, etc. its population eventually reached 2,000.

More Fort Jefferson trivia:  It's the largest masonry project in the Western Hemisphere; the 16 million bricks used to build it are hand-made but the thick walls between the brick exterior contain cement made of coral debris.
The original, light-colored bricks were manufactured in Pensacola; it took four days to deliver them to the fort by sailing schooner.  When Florida seceded the Union to join the Confederacy during the Civil War, and in order to finish the top of the fort, bricks had to be purchased and shipped from Maine. The darker red bricks are the "Northern bricks."
The bricks were whitewashed to reflect light and increase visibility in the dark corridors.

Because of the absense of fresh water, there are no latrines on the island; campers get to use fragile composting toilets only between certain hours.  I never did discover the reason for the time limitations.  Other visitors must use the facilities on the boats they arrived in.  There are eight primitive camping sites; permits limit the number of days you can stay, and bring your own everything, especially water!
If you see those white spots in this photo, you may have spotted some Masked Boobies.  "Bobo" is Spanish slang for "stupid."  Colloquially they were referred to as "boobies" because when hunted by the Spaniards, they "stupidly" (What a booby!!) didn't try to fly away and were easily caught.  That's the story I heard anyway!
Oh wait!  NOW you can see them better!!!!
A Magificent Frigate riding the thermals.  What a view it has!
After the Army abandoned Fort Jefferson 16 million bricks and thirty years later, it was used as a quarantine station by the Marine Hospital Service. Remaining in federal hands, it was designated a wildlife refuge to protect Sooty Tern and Masked Booby rookeries on outlying islands; then, over a hundred years later, the islands gained National Park status in the early 1990's. In 2007 it was set aside as a "no-take" ecological preserve -- now a living laboratory.
P.S.  Turtle status...the green sea turtle is endangered; the loggerhead turtle is threatened.