Tortugas Travels

By staff November 1, 2003

As a veteran traveler and aficionado of this fine state, I'm often approached by people with burning questions.

The most frequent inquiry: "What's Captain Florida's absolute favorite place to visit?"

The next most frequent: "Hey, man, what is your problem?" But that's another story, another time.

So what is my favorite place? That's easy. It's a land of extremes and contradictions, a place many people don't even realize is part of Florida.

The Dry Tortugas.

Some think they're down in the Caribbean near Trinidad. Others, who realize they're actually a part of the United States, assume they're just a possession, like the Virgin Islands.

No, the Dry Tortugas are totally and completely Florida.

The reason for confusion is geography. The Tortugas are the most remote and difficult place to get to in all the state. First, you have to go all the way to Key West. Then you get in a boat or a seaplane and go another 70 miles west, into the middle of nowhere.

I discovered the islands in 1988. It was the most impulsive trip I've ever taken, which is not exactly how you want to find yourself in the Dry Tortugas. I would soon learn why they're called dry.

I was living in a triplex behind the Dairy Queen in Sarasota. It was 4 a.m. on a Friday. I was a single, 27-year-old reporter working for The Tampa Tribune, and I had insomnia. I also had cabin fever. So I was up pacing this one tiny room I was living in, where just about the only possessions were my books and camping gear. I had a collection of every National Geographic with an article on Florida back to 1920. The shelf of magazines caught my eye as I paced by. I impetuously decided I was going to grab one of the issues off the shelf at random and come quitting time at work the next afternoon just blast off for the most distant place in the pages of that article. OK, eeny, meeny, miney mo. January 1972. The Florida Keys. I flipped to the back page, and there was Fort Jefferson, the major feature of the Tortugas, covering virtually all of Garden Key.

I thought, I can't possibly leave in 12 hours for a place so far away that I have no idea how to get to and wasn't even thinking of 10 minutes ago. Which meant, of course, that I had to go. I quickly packed, stuffed it all in the trunk of an embarrassing Oldsmobile with 120,000 miles on the odometer, and grabbed a half-hour catnap near dawn.

On my lunch hour that day, I worked the phones. Area code 305. This was before the Internet. I asked the chamber of commerce about seaplanes to the Dry Tortugas, and I called a number they gave me to book a flight the next afternoon. I don't remember the exact cost, but I couldn't afford it on my salary back then. I felt the gambler's rush of throwing myself at a bad decision-another reason I had to go. At exactly five o'clock, I was out the door. I drove south through the cool night with the windows down, feeling free as a bird, then across the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail to Homestead, where I put up.

The next morning was a leisurely drive down the Keys to Stock Island. I turned onto a gravel road to the airport, which was more like a shed where you rent beach umbrellas. My pilot was wearing sandals and looked like Jack Nicklaus' less attractive half-brother. We took off from the harbor and flew low at 300 feet until there was nothing but sea in all directions. We passed over a submerged ship and giant loggerhead turtles splashing around in the middle of the open Gulf, then the Marquesas Atoll and a yacht that appeared to be flying because the water was so clear I could see its shadow on the ocean floor.

Another 10 minutes, and I began to see something massive rising up from the sea on the western horizon. It was the Civil-War-era Fort Jefferson-literally millions of bricks-appearing about as natural out here as a mall on the North Pole.

We circled the fort for a landing and taxied through a handful of sailboats that had found safe harbor between Garden and Bush keys. There was a beach shoaled up around part of the fort, and the pilot nosed the pontoons into the sand. I jumped down barefoot into the shallow water and yanked my camping gear from the stowage area. The plane took off.

You're not allowed to camp inside the fort, so I lugged everything around to the southern shore, where I pitched my tent on the beach under a coconut palm. There were only a couple of other people camping; most of the visitors that day preferred the comforts of their sailboat cabins. I made another trip back to get my cooler. Then I began walking around talking to strangers.

This was the unexpected part of the Dry Tortugas: the people.

The location is so remote and unforgiving that you only meet certain rare strains of individual. You don't end up here by accident. It is the maximum dead end, not on the way to anywhere else.

Back in the 1800s, people didn't arrive by accident, either, but it was definitely involuntary. First, there were the soldiers who built the fort and were later stationed here. It was hot and full of disease, like yellow fever (hence the name of nearby Hospital Key, little more than a sandbar, where patients from the fort were quarantined). Next came the inmates. After the development of the rifled cannon rendered the fort's armaments obsolete, it became a prison. Alcatraz has the reputation, but this was the place you didn't want to escape from. It's where they stuck Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man who set the broken leg of Lincoln's assassin, until he was pardoned for his work during one of the yellow-fever outbreaks.

Today, it's a different mix. There's the colony of hardy park rangers who are into a Thoreau trip and can sometimes be seen riding bicycles atop the moat wall at dawn. Then there's the yachtsmen. They may be rich, but they must also have a streak of adventure and self-reliance, because storms quickly spring up and you're on your own. There are the shrimpers, who have been at sea for weeks, and I've seen them dive off boats and swim to the fort for "shore leave." There are marine-biology students studying possibly the most unspoiled and wild ecosystems in the state. There are the hard-core bird watchers who come every year for the migration of the sooty and noddy terns from the Carolinas. For hundreds of years, the birds' internal guidance systems led them 1,000 miles into the middle of the Gulf to establish a rookery on Bird Key. Then a 1935 hurricane erased the island, and they now nest on nearby Bush Key. (Back in the 1700s, sailors would come ashore and step on all the eggs, causing the birds to promptly lay fresh eggs, which the sailors promptly gathered for their return to sea.)

After setting up my encampment in 1988, I immediately headed across the drawbridge and into the fort, where I chatted up the rangers. They directed me to Mudd's dark, dank cell, where I stared out a tiny, bright slit at the sea and sky, trying to imagine Mudd's emotional whipsaw-one of the world's most spectacular views from a place of collapsing despair.

I crossed the parade grounds where the soldiers mustered, and I walked around the roof where I could see the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key. Then I circled the fort atop the moat's wide wall. The man coming toward me on the wall was "walking" his fish. He tossed pieces of bread in the water as he strolled, and a large tropical fish kept pace.

The sun went down. I made a fire. I cooked a steak from my cooler. I drank beer. Just before midnight, I walked out again on the moat wall. I sat down on the far, ocean-facing side of the fort, waves lapping the 150-year-old masonry, feeling like I had the world all to myself. My cabin fever was cured. I looked up at a dome of stars so bright and clear it seemed artificial, and I thought, this was the best insane decision I have ever made.

I woke up in the middle of the night. My mouth was pasty. I had read all about the Dry Tortugas in my National Geographic. No freshwater to be had on the islands, not even today.

I thought I had adequately stocked my cooler, but this was summer and I had been perspiring and taking fluids like a fiend. The cooler was empty. I have quite an imagination. I would die in minutes.

I ran down to the shore, looking for someone who might be awake, but no luck. By dawn I was running up to people trying to buy a soda for 10 dollars. One of the boaters coming ashore in a rowboat took pity and gave me two Cokes.

I got married several years later, and I persuaded my wife to fly out and camp with me-and an extra-large cooler. We pitched a tent on the same spot by the moat wall. To this day, we remember three things in particular from that trip.

First, the noisy, rickety boat that approached the island and sent all the wealthy yachtsmen racing for shore in dinghies and Zodiacs, loaded down with bottles of Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal. My wife and I trotted to the dock completely baffled. Turned out the beat-up boat housed a band of crusty, wildcat shrimpers that was like a motorcycle gang gone to sea. They swapped giant garbage bags of jumbo shrimp over the railing for the expensive booze, which they uncapped and started chugging on the spot.

Second memory: The wicked midnight storm that sent nylon dome tents rolling across the beach like tumbleweeds. We weighted down our own tent with coconuts and went to investigate the racket from the harbor, where collision alarms were going off as the wind tore boats loose from their anchorage.

Final memory, the next morning. We awoke and crawled outside. Leading up to our tent from the water were what looked like small tank tracks. They were actually flipper tracks, left where a loggerhead turtle had climbed out of the Gulf of Mexico in the middle of the night as we slept, looking for a spot to lay her eggs.

Filed under
Show Comments