Florida’s Forgotten National Park
Sara Zeglin, associate producer for Digital Media for National Geographic Kids, is just back from a trip to the Florida Keys, where she had the chance to explore Dry Tortugas, one of the country’s least visited national parks.
I’m not ashamed to say it–I’m in love with the national parks. I have one of those Passport books and everything. I like to plan my vacations around park visits, and although visiting the Everglades was the basis of my spring trip to Florida, I couldn’t resist adding one of the more elusive stamps to my book: Dry Tortugas National Park.
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the least-visited parks in the whole NPS system. That’s not really surprising. The seven islands that make up the park are about 70 miles west of Key West. Juan Ponce de León named them Las Tortugas for all the sea turtles that were seen in the area, and the “Dry” part of the name comes from notations on maps–no fresh water can be found here. That’s still true today. Park rangers living on Garden Key, most well-known of the Tortugas, collect water in cisterns and are careful about using it.
Garden Key is home to Fort Jefferson, a massive fort built to protect U.S. shipping interests in the Gulf of Mexico. The island is only accessible by boat or seaplane. There’s a small campground on the island if you want to stay more than the few hours, but we chose to take a day tour, buying tickets on the Fast Cat through Sunny Days Catamarans. (You can also travel there on your own, but I’m not sure I’d be able to kayak 70 miles.) The trip out took about two hours, with beautiful turquoise water to be seen on all sides. Seeing Fort Jefferson appear on the horizon is quite a sight.
After stepping on shore, we had a few minutes to gawk at the exterior of the massive fort before our tour. Inside, we learned that the fort was never completed because it was rendered obsolete by the development of rifled cannon during the Civil War. There were problems with the fort from the very beginning–the sheer weight of the building caused it to settle, and it was (and is) under constant threat from hurricane winds and the wear and tear of the waves. Being stationed at the fort was no picnic, with very little water or fresh food. Trips to the mainland were rare, and there was almost nothing to do other than training drills over and over again. (They must have been the best-trained soldiers in the U.S. Army.) The reefs surrounding Garden Key are treacherous–on one occasion, the garrison watched a supply ship carrying fresh produce sail towards the island and strike the reef. As it sank, I’m sure the soldiers’ hearts sank as well.
The fort was designed to have more than 400 guns mounted on swivel tracks so they could point in all directions outside of their windows.
Soldiers were stationed at the fort during the Civil War, but they got there before the cannons. On one memorable day, a Confederate ship approached the daunting-looking fort and demanded that the garrison surrender. The message from inside? “Leave now or we’ll blow your ship out of the water.” This was a risky bluff, but it paid off. The ship sailed away with no shots fired. This is the closest that Fort Jefferson ever came to combat.
At the end of the tour, we had a couple of hours to do whatever we liked, so I did some further exploration of the fort. One of the things I wanted to find was Dr.
Samuel A. Mudd’s cell. Dr. Mudd was the Maryland doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg. Although he claimed he didn’t know who the man was when he treated him, he was arrested and shipped to Fort Jefferson in 1865. While he was imprisoned at the fort, yellow fever swept through the garrison. Many soldiers were killed, and so were the resident medical staff. Dr. Mudd was then asked to care for the ill soldiers. He agreed, on the condition that his chains be removed. There was no real way to treat yellow fever in the 19th century–most of Dr. Mudd’s work was making the patients comfortable. Luckily for him, the epidemic was burning out, and there weren’t many more deaths. He was credited with saving the garrison, and a grateful nation released him in 1869.
Lunch was served on the Fast Cat during our free time, then we set out to snorkel (lunch is included in the ticket price, as is the snorkeling gear). I had never snorkeled before, but I had always wanted to try. We sailed to Bush Key, another small island close to Garden Key, and once I got over the mental block surrounding putting my face in the water and inhaling, I was off.
It was incredible. I couldn’t stop from making muffled exclamations through my snorkel from time to time, and the feeling I got from seeing all the life in the water was euphoric. I swam with a school of tiny fish, saw a conch cruising through the seagrass, and saw coral and bright purple sea fans anchored to rocks. The most colorful displays were on the pilings sunk into the seafloor just beyond the seawall.
Unfortunately, this was also barracuda territory. If I had known better, I would have kept going (and removed my rings–I have since read that barracudas go after the sparklies). But I didn’t, and seeing their underslung jaws loaded with pointy teeth in three face-to-face encounters scared me out of the water. I plan to snorkel again someday, and next time I won’t be scared off so easily.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The last thing I did before boarding the Fast Cat for the trip back to Key West was to stroll around the seawall. You can see quite a bit of sea life in the moat between the wall and the fort because the water is so shallow. It’s not the same as the snorkeling, but at least there were no more face-to-face barracuda encounters! The very last animal I saw on Garden Key’s shores was a Portuguese Man-of-War. Technically it’s not a jellyfish, and it’s not even one animal, but four separate organisms that can’t live on their own. It was a vibrant purple color, and I can safely say that I found it beautiful because I was on land and did not get stung!
I am deeply saddened that Dry Tortugas National Park is being threatened by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Having seen the amazing diversity of animals living in the water firsthand, I can all-too-vividly imagine the impact of the oil on the ecosystem here.
Check out photographs of Florida’s marine environment from last weekend’s BioBlitz 2010 at Biscayne National Park, and get more information about Dry Tortugas National Park at NationalGeographic.com. Driving the Overseas Highway and Seven-Mile Bridge is one of Traveler’s Drives of a Lifetime.
Photos: Top photo, Larry Keller, submitted to My Shot; all other photos by Sara Zeglin.