Monday, May 16, 2022

DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK, FLORIDA, Guest Post by Caroline Hatton at The Intrepid Tourist


Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

My friend Caroline Hatton, a frequent contributor to this blog, rode a boat on a day trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida, in May 2011. She took all the photos
in this post except for the one above. Credit: U.S. National Park Service..

In May 2011, my husband and I and a couple of friends decided to visit Dry Tortugas National Park during a week-long vacation in Florida. The remote location, almost 70 miles (~113 km) west of Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, made it especially attractive. Most of the park is open water full of marine life. Seven small coral reef islands welcome numerous, diverse birds. One of them is the home of 19th-century Fort Jefferson.

The only two ways to get to the park: by seaplane ($$$) or boat ($$).

Of the only two ways to get there, by seaplane or boat, we chose the less expensive option and lined up to board the Yankee Freedom Ferry, a high-speed catamaran. The boat left on time—but turned around to pick up passengers who showed up late, and departed again with an hour delay! Had the return trip also been delayed by an hour, we would have had 4½ hours on the island, as described. Unfortunately, later that day, the boat left the island at the regular time, truncating our visit by a whole hour! (I suppose that if the boat had returned late, it could have wrecked some passengers’ evening plans and required the staff to work overtime.)

First glimpse of Fort Jefferson as the boat arrives at Dry Tortugas National Park.

On the 2½-hour boat ride out, I sat glued to a window to scan the ocean for interesting sights, but gave up after an hour of nothing but flat water under clear skies. No land, no life form, no dead wood adrift, not even a lost Styrofoam cup. Other passengers played cards, one read a book, many slept. Since then, I’ve never gone anywhere without paper and pencil in case I get an idea for a new children’s story (or travel blog post) to write.

Guided tours of the fort start here at 11 a.m. daily.

On the guided tour included in the trip price, a Ranger shared a ton of interesting information from the past to the present. The islands were a safe place for ships, so the fort was built to defend this strategic harbor and gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. We heard how many decades and millions of bricks it took to build the fort. In the 19th century, even before the fort was completed, it had become obsolete, because new and improved cannons were capable of breaching the brick walls. Yet it was inhabited for almost a hundred years. Soldiers, prisoners, and even women and children endured tropical heat and diseases, with rain as the only source of potable water. In the 21st century, Cuban refugees, upon arrival by small boat to this United States location closest to Cuba, already knew the names of the Rangers on duty.

Got 14 doorways in this shot!

The trip price included complimentary snorkeling gear. But getting in any kind of water is not my idea of fun, so I skipped it.

Window view, Dry Tortugas.

What I liked best was hunting for photos to take, in and around the fort, including aligned doorways receding away, the outdoors through window openings framed with stone, abstract paintings on aging bricks by Mother Nature and Father Time, birds, and stunningly gorgeous sea watercolors.

This serious-looking tropical seabird is a Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus).

Lunch was included in the trip price. I stood last in the lunch line. When I reached the sandwich “buffet,” the only food left was one piece of bread and two slices of cheese. It was enough for me, but I didn’t like wasting 45 minutes waiting in line for it. Since then, I’ve never gone anywhere without a snack in my pocket! In current Covid times, online info indicates that lunch consists of pre-packaged sandwiches.

The view from Fort Jefferson.

Of the theoretical 4½ hours on the island, one was spent picking up the passengers who had initially missed the boat and I spent 45 minutes in the lunch line, leaving less than 3 hours to visit the place. Even 4½ hours may not have been enough for me to linger to my satisfaction. Had I known this in advance, I would have skipped this expensive outing and visited the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West instead.

That said, on the 2½-hour boat ride back, my traveling companions had a blast tasting various cocktails while I took candid photos of the silly faces they made because of “brain freeze.” As everywhere we travel together, we had a memorable day of friendship and fun no matter what happened—or didn’t.


All text and photos, copyright Caroline Arnold.