Have you ever heard of the Dry Tortugas? It’s one of the US National Parks, and most of it is underwater! A visit to Garden Key had been high up on my husband’s and my bucket list for the past years, and last March we actually were able to realize this dream. We travelled to Key West to set out on our trip 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, you cannot just hop on the boat – you have to plan this carefully, as there are only very limited tickets per day to Garden Key and Fort Jefferson. So, if you ever plan to go, book your ticket in advance – and do so quite a few months ahead. Also, check that you book an overnight place way ahead of time – it can be a challenge to get a decent place at a decent price down in Key West.
It was still dark at seven o’clock in the morning when we walked from our hotel to the terminal in the historical harbor; but the cocks of Key West were already crowing their heads off. We checked in and were advised by our day guide to take some Dramamine, as the sea would be choppy. When we boarded the catamaran an hour later, the sun was just rising. We found ourselves a seat on the outside upper deck and waited until most of the other passengers had served themselves from the breakfast buffet. It was a tough feat, holding the plate, while eating, as the wind was already ripping at everything that we had grabbed in a quick haul. Also, the ride got tougher and tougher. After an hour, the boat was rocking on 3-foot-waves, and – it had become cold where we were sitting – my husband and I went down a deck to the slipstream of the boat. While my husband simply fell asleep, I held on to a metal grip for dear life, as the catamaran lifted one side out of the water and you could hear the propeller churn in the air and the metal moan, then the boat crashed down, rolling from one side to the other in an unfathomable pattern. I stared at the sky to keep my stomach from roiling; meanwhile the crew brought down passenger after passenger, handing them paper bags. I have to admit: Those guys were incredible with their stable sea legs and their friendly calm in handling their fickle freight.
When Garden Key appeared on the horizon, it almost seemed like a mirage. It must have been even more so to sailors of times of yore. The Dry Tortugas – no water, but plenty of turtles for livestock – were literally key to survival on week-long sailing trips back then. And when Fort Jefferson was built from six million bricks in 1825/26, it ensured the US dominance in the entire Gulf region due to its crucial location, e.g. for the supply of cities such as New Orleans. The stern shape, the colors of reds brick against the turquoise sea and blue skies, interrupted by actual green had a surreal effect on me. I certainly took gazillions of pictures of the island with its moat, yellow beaches, brushland, and unique architectural angles. A fort for defense, then a prison during the Civil War, a place where yellow fever ravaged prisoners and guards alike, the place is one that is explored with awe rather than boisterousness – especially as it is kept as it was left. And you better make sure you keep from the edges and the places where it tells you “No step” – a fall 30 feet down could break your neck.
Today, there is a ranger station inside the old fort. The seven islands (four of the originally eleven have been swallowed by the sea) are a paradise for birds and maritime life. There is also a camp ground outside its walls for those who want to experience Garden Key more closely – but you have to bring your own water and food supplies, as there is no store other than a museum gift store on the premises. Our catamaran crew had set up a neat lunch buffet though; so, when returning from the guided tour and some more time of exploring on our own, we were well seen to. There was even time to slip into a bathing suit and dip into the surf. My husband had brought his own snorkeling equipment (the boat trip even included free gear for borrowing) and went for the pilings near the boat landing where he discovered plenty of colorful fish all sizes, “except clownfish”.
The ferry ride back was much smoother. We watched from the back of the boat as the lighthouse of Loggerhead Key and Fort Jefferson on Garden Key slipped beyond the horizon again. It was strange how, though the lusher beauty of Key West and its neighboring islands was appearing up front again, the more austere majesty of the Dry Tortugas kept pulling at my heart strings. I’d have loved to fly back with the gulls overhead.