There’s a National Park in America that is 98% underwater. It is the home of Fort Jefferson and is situated two and a half hours away from Key West (via boat). The park in question is Dry Tortugas and it is situated on the end of the Florida Straits. If you like your fortified buildings and marine life, it is definitely worth a look.
I was lucky enough to visit Dry Tortugas (Spanish for ‘Turtle’) in November with my partner. I stumbled across the place by accident as I was investigating Google Maps one day. I was planning a road trip around Florida and noticed a National Park named in the middle of the sea. I thought ‘that can’t be right’ so I zoomed in to find out what was there. Sure enough, in the middle of the sea, there was a tiny island with a fort on it. I knew there and then that I had to visit this isolated bastion.
After a bit of research, it turned out that there were two ways to get to Dry Tortugas. One way was to catch a boat at half seven in the morning and travel for two and a half hours to get there. A faster option was to charter a seaplane and fly there in thirty minutes. As this was five times the price of the boat, we booked for the slower option.
Due to the length of time it took to get to the island and the restrictions in light, the tour we were booked on only gave us four hours on the island. I didn’t think this would be enough time to do everything I wanted to do, but my partner thought it would be too long. When we had to be back on the boat to leave, we both agreed that four hours wasn’t long enough.
The boat trip itself was pleasant and smooth, and we got chatting to several Americans as we crossed the sea. The elections had finished the day before so politics in the form of Trump and Brexit were the default conversation topics for the day. Key West had been very pro-Trump whilst we were visiting. Many of the American tourists we talked to there were not. One woman even apologised to me and remarked that I looked very calm, all things considered.
When we arrived at the island, we were faced with a decision – did we explore the fort first, or should we go snorkelling and look for turtles? The fort got the vote.
Fort Jefferson is hexagonal in shape and has a moat that runs around the perimeter. A tour party with an over-enthusiastic tour guide was getting ready to go inside the fort, so we opted to walk around the moat first. I had downloaded a self-guided tour PDF when we registered in the morning so we could wonder around at our own pace. The moat had three uses when the fort was occupied. Its primary use, like most moats by design, was to act as a defence against any possible invaders. It also acted as a breakwater against any waves (as the fort is exposed to the sea) and finally it acted as a tidal flushing sewer system. Thankfully, it only had one purpose on our visit.
When we made it inside the fort, we walked around and took it all in. The fort had served many purposes over the years, a military outpost, a supply depot and a prison to name a few. Although the fort was never finished, there were many points of interest inside. There were over 400 casemates (gunrooms), many of which never got a cannon. There were soldier barracks which could house over 1,500 men, but these kept getting destroyed by hurricanes. Two large parade magazines sit unfinished in the courtyard (there should have been five) as well as a partly built, small parade magazine.
What it did have, however, were cannons. Big cannons! I like a good cannon and as a result I know a thing or two about them! There were two on display, a 25 ton, 15-inch Rodman (smoothbore) and a 27,000 pound, 10-inch Parrot rifle (er, rifled). I got a bit carried away explaining to my girlfriend how the cannons worked with their breaches and rifling that I didn’t notice her filming me. I might post it on my YouTube channel if she still has a copy. (UPDATE: She does and you can find it by clicking here!)
When we realised that we’d spent nearly three hours exploring the ruins, we thought we should take advantage of the clear blue waters and go snorkelling. I’m not the best swimmer in the world but I’m good enough to enjoy a snorkel. There were plenty of designated areas to go swimming around Dry Tortugas and we chose an area by the moat which was sheltered. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the best snorkelling experience I’ve ever had – there was lots of plant life but not many fish and what I did see were pretty non-descript and bland. Unfortunately due to time restrictions, we didn’t stray too far from the shore. I’m sure we would have seen some interesting things if we had ventured a bit further out – maybe even some turtles.
We were both sad to leave Dry Tortugas, it was a brilliant place to visit – I cannot recommend it enough! It is possible to camp there for a few nights which I think would be amazing. We looked into it but there was a four month waiting list. I’m guessing we’re not the only people who think it would be a great place to camp out under the stars. Let’s just say that if I ever find myself out that way again, I’m taking a tent…