April 26, 2014:
That’s right, the westernmost point of the Florida Keys, the furthest island out, the Dry Tortugas! This was the day! When we set off some three weeks prior from Pensacola on this maiden voyage to the Keys, we had originally planned to sail to the Dry Tortugas. We really wanted to make it all the way there via the s/v Plaintiff’s Rest, but we knew when we set off that it might not happen. The Dry Tortugas are another 70 miles west of Key West, so about another 15-20 hour passage there, depending on the sea-state and weather, and then another 15-20 hours back. So, to spend a few days anchored out at the Dry Tortugas would add another 5-6 days to our already-extended trip. All evidence to the contrary (and until we hit it big with the Powerball), we do still have day jobs we had to get back to. But, we weren’t going to let that stop us from seeing one of the most pristine islands in the states. We booked a ferry and set off:
And, you may laugh at this, but I have to say, riding on that ferry kind of blew my mind. We had just traveled some 550 miles at the average speed of 4.5 knots. If we “broke six” on the sailboat, we were making some real time. And, now, here we were on this big ass ferry doing 29 knots. We were flying!
I looked like a goofy dog hanging his head out the back window as we ripped across the Gulf.
“Jeepers, Captain! Look at us go!”
I couldn’t stop staring over the side of the boat!
It really was a strange sensation, though, to be moving SO fast across the water when we had been harnessing the power of the wind for most of our voyage, slowly cruising across the Gulf, picking our way along the coast to avoid the shoals and crab pods. Oh, and the crab pods! I had been so trained while we were sailing to keep a squinted eye out along the horizon for them, that the first one I saw as we were rushing through the water on the ferry, I nudged Phillip and pointed it out. But, before I could get out the words, “Look, Phillip a crab … “ zwhoop! There it went. Sucked right up under the ferry. Dodge crab pods? Please. These people had places to go! It was crazy to see the ferry just mow a path right through them when we had taken such care all through the Gulf to gingerly pick our way around them. Big. Fast. Motorboats. That certainly was new to us.
But, cruising on the ferry was pretty nice. We left around 8:00 a.m., and they had a little breakfast buffet spread out for us. The typical kind of hotel continental breakfast food (bagels, cream cheese, toast, bright yellow fluff eggs) but it was air-conditioned inside the galley and there were plenty of places to curl up with a book and just relax. I finished The Paris Wife, which we had picked up at the book swap in Port St. Joe. It was somewhat of a tragic, but touching read. Incredibly creative historical fiction viewpoint through the eyes of Hemingway’s first wife. Highly recommend it. And, Phillip dug into In Our Time – the bikini sprint birthday book. We enjoyed sipping our coffee and reading while we cruised along. Around mid-morning, we started to spot some islands on the horizon.
And, then she started to come into view.
I couldn’t believe the color of the water around her–so bright it was almost electric. This piercing, neon green. These photos can’t even begin to capture it. It’s hard to take your eyes off of it, it’s so striking.
Just as we were pulling in, a sea plane landed.
And, then I saw the sign:
Ha! What a laugh. It should just say: <— Poor Folk Millionaires —>
When the ferry docked, we were free to explore. Both Phillip and I were a little hesitant when we first booked the ferry because we really would have liked to have come to this beautiful island on our own sailboat and explored at our leisure. Having to follow the rest of the fanny-pack clad tourists along, brochure in hand, being lead every step of the way by a verbose tour guide, is not how we wanted to experience this pristine landscape. But, I will say, the folks running this ferry tour did a great job of allowing us the freedom and flexibility to experience the island on our own terms. The ferry docked around 11:00 a.m. and a lunch spread was laid out. You were then given the choice to either follow the formal tour guide, brochure in hand, and get a detailed history of the fort or you could explore on your own. And, you didn’t have to eat lunch on the boat. (You could if you wanted to, and many did because it was air-conditioned.) But, you were also free to pack your own sandwiches and snacks up and set up your own picnic style lunch wherever you wanted on the island. Snorkel gear was available in all sizes. You could just check it out and bring it back at your leisure. It was really a great “hands-off” approach to a tour.
Once the ferry docked, we set off for the Fort.
It reminded me a lot of Fort Pickens back in Pensacola. Lots of underground artillery bunkers, windows set up with a swivel gun for firing, twisted corridors and barracks for storage.
We came across some neat finds while we were down there:
One of the makeshift boats they used to cross from Cuba.
An old Fort tower, lighthouse-slash-lookout.
We also learned some really interesting history about the Fort while we were poking around. While I had a sinking suspicion that the name of the island had something to do with turtles (and I envisioned a Sir Francis Drake-like character stumbling upon a sea turtle-infested spit of land), I also know I have a tendency to make these type of silly connections on my own initiative that have nothing to do with reality, so I never spoke of it, but alas it was confirmed! We learned that Ponce de Leon discovered the islands in 1513 and named them the Tortugas (which does mean turtle in Spanish) because of the hundreds of sea turtles he and his men found along the islands and shoals. The Dry was added to let other explorers know there were no springs here. It was a pretty rough environment for voyagers. After 30 years on Garden Key, and due to an excruciating lack of sufficient supplies and provisions, the U.S. decided to forego the completion of Fort Jefferson, and it remained abandoned until the late 1800’s when it was used as a prison for a brief stint. I could totally see that.
The place was pretty barren. And, there’s not really anywhere you could go assuming you did escape. It is kind of out there on its own in the middle of the Gulf.
We made it up to the top wall and found a great view of the entire island.
We could see out to the anchorage, too, where we would someday be dropping our hook.
The Captain looked out across the boats, a sigh and a dreamy glaze in his eye.
“We’re going to be right there,” he’d tell me. “Right there … ” And, we will. I can assure you. Next time we come to the Dry Tortugas, the Plaintiff’s Rest will be resting her tired hull right there!
But, we were thrilled also to be there by ferry. No matter how we got there, it was too beautiful not to enjoy.
The water, again, is what continued to captivate me. A glowing turquoise.
Being the rogue travel rebels we are, we decided to pack up a lunch and eat on the wall that forms the moat around the Fort.
“Moat seating for two, please?”
With a view like that, I don’t think I’ve ever had a ham sandwich that tasted that good. We were fine dining al fresco! You could lean over the wall and look down at the water and see all kind of fish and marine activity.
We saw so much wildlife that day. Even whales!
So tame they would just float right by!
We had a great time picnicking on the moat. We could have sat there all day … But, you know us. Not much for sitting. We like to go, see and do! So, it was time to see what this crystal green water was all about!
“Lose those clothes, Mate! It’s time to get in!”
“Roger that, Cap’n!”
We snapped up some snorkel gear and set to it.
I have only snorkeled a handful of times in my life, so I’m positively spoiled now. Sorry Captain – you created this monster. Because, the snorkeling there, at the Dry Tortugas, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Not six inches below the waterline and you could see a whole spectrum of colors and coral and wildlife.
There were tons of coral heads just teeming with life. Many of them had these little (I’m struggling to describe it) swirly poof things, kind of like a flower blossom, that stuck out of them and when you swished your hand by them, they would suck back in to the coral. You wouldn’t even have known they were alive, until you awakened them with a swish of water. It was the coolest thing.
We snorkeled around the moat wall and then headed out about 100 yards off the western side of the island to the coral heads. Phillip had a real eye for the wildlife and he pointed out a huge grouper, even a nurse shark. I know what they say about sharks – don’t bother them and they won’t bother you – but I’ll say I kicked away slowly and steadily, keeping my eye on that guy. This is one Mate who had no desire to be shark bait that day. We snorkeled around for an hour or so and then kicked back on the beach to bask in the sun.
After a short rest, we decided to walk along the moat wall around to the south side of the island to snorkel around the pilings. The walk alone was beautiful enough,
but, I got really excited when I saw the pilings.
Can you imagine the marine life we’re going to find in there? Let me tell you, you can’t. You just have to see it. We dove in, and it felt like we were swimming in a dream. Clouds of fish would swirl around you until you poked your finger out and swished them apart like a puff of air. There were hundreds, thousands of them, swimming together and swirling around like some chained piece of jewelry. It was mesmerizing.
So much so I forgot I was even human. Legs? What legs? I don’t have appendages, I’m a fish! The sting of it surprised me when it struck and I snorkeled around for a bit in denial. Throbbing leg? What throbbing leg? There are fish to be seen and poked! But Phillip rightly pulled me out when a light, murky cloud started to form around me. I did mention the shark, right?
Break out the old first aid kit … First Mate done got into something again!