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Dry Tortugas -- Fort Jefferson


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#1 laz217

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Posted 11 June 2002 - 10:15 PM

June 2nd, 2002 – Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

It was 6:30am when I awoke preparing for the day to come. Awaking to the site
and smell of tropical Key West, I got my things together and drove about 5 minutes
to the Key West airport where I was to board my flight. This tiny airport was
once a very busy link for the old Key Westerners who for just a few dollars
could hop on a flight and spend the day in Cuba—smoke a few Cuban cigars,
have some Cuban Espresso (whew!), and enjoy the sights and sounds of a Caribbean
town bustling with a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds.

With today’s embargo and communism having such an impact on the island
of Cuba this airport no longer makes such trips. Serving as a simple getaway
for the tourists who would like to try out a little stunt airplane action, a
trip to the mainland or as I was about to embark in— take a 40 minute seaplane
ride 70 miles west of Key West to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

Showcasing three beautiful seaplanes, Seaplane of Key West cheerfully
greeted me and soon enough I was filling out the information necessary in order
to make my trip. Being about 30 minutes early gave me a chance to walk around
and see these beautiful seaplanes up close and personal—the envy of anyone
who would love to travel the Caribbean in a style all of his/her own. The perfect
scuba 'airboat' if you ask me.

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It wasn’t long before the others who would be sharing of this adventure
would arrive. We introduced each other and boarded the plane with the pilot
dressed in common tropical attire (You’ve gotta love Key West). The time
had come—we were on our way to our new adventure over land, air and sea.

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Shortly after boarding the seaplane, we began taxing down the short runway
and zoom…we were off. A lot less bumpy and heart-wrenching than many of
today’s commercial airlines, this little fella soared like an eagle in
the air. Being that I have flown few times, I spent the whole trip with a huge
smile on my face. Between the joys of flying, a spectacular view of Key West,
the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the perfect-picturesque views of small
mangrove keys with clouds reflecting off the mirror-like ocean and spotting
tons of sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, schools of sharks, eagle rays, and
more—from only 500ft. above sea level—the 40 minute trip to Fort Jefferson
was jaw-dropping.

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It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Dry Tortugas. Originally discovered
and named by Ponce De Leon in 1513 as Las Tortugas for its abundance of sea
turtles. These islands were later named in many nautical charts as Dry Tortugas
to warn sailors of the lack of fresh water (or so it's been said).

On the horizon it appeared, the engineering marvel of the 1800’s was in
sight—Fort Jefferson. Awe inspiring as it is seeing it in a photograph,
nothing can really prepare you for the feeling you get from circling the fort
just 500ft. above it. Consisting of over 16 million bricks, Fort Jefferson was
originally built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1846 and construction continued
for over 30 years—although it was never finished. This fort, which covers
11 acres of the 16 acre Garden Key, was originally designed to control navigation
to the Gulf of Mexico and protect Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade.

During the Civil War, the fort was converted into a military prison for captured
deserters. Among its prisoners were four men convicted of complicity in President
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the most famous being Dr. Samuel
Mudd. In 1935, Fort Jefferson was proclaimed a National Monument but it wasn’t
until 1992 that Dry Tortugas reached its current status as a National Park.

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As the seaplane now descended upon the waters next to the fort, the smooth,
yet skipping landing was definitely an experience to remember. It's easy to
know how a Cormorant bird feels as it makes its landing in the water. Beached
on the white sand next to the fort, we exited the seaplane and were shortly
briefed by the pilot on the fort’s history, points of interests, and at
what time we were to meet up for our departure.

With 2 ½ hours to spend on my own personal adventure on this key, it
wasn’t long before I was wandering through the center of the fort, through
its many passage-ways and up spiraling stair cases to the top of this enormous
fort where huge cannons used to protect this fort. The views were all inspiring
and I couldn’t help to think of what it must have been like for all the
people who built this engineering marvel.

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Nature too really shows off its own engineering marvels in the waters surrounding
the fort. Through the years, tons of coral polyps have collected on the brick
walls that protect the fort from the ravages of the ocean. Snorkeling around
the fort in its emerald green waters and seeing the ocean’s beauty in less
than 6-7 ft. of water was divine. Many juvenile tropical fish darted in and
out of the protection of the coral heads, turtle grass, and tons of soft corals
that cover the area around the fort and the reefs. Cruising nearby were schools
of large tarpon, snappers, and the occasional great barracuda.

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Around the fort towards the north-eastern side are the remains of an old ship
dock. With only its pilings still erect, this area along with the bird sanctuary
nearby (Sands Key) has become the roosting home of tons of birds such as Noddies
and Pelicans with magnificent Frigatebirds soaring high in the sky.

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Click here to see and hear the bird sanctuary on Sands Keys (Windows Media Player Req.)

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After an exhausting, but stunning snorkeling adventure around half of Garden
Key it was almost time to leave. After a quick run to the other side of the
fort to pick-up my belongings and a few snapshots, we were waving farewell to
this magnificent place. Swearing that I would return—but next time I would
try my hands at camping on the key overnight. This wonderful key, the fort,
and its waters made for a fantastic half-day adventure 70 miles west in what
was once the realm of pirates and billions of dollars in gold and emeralds…all
waiting to be discovered.

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Laz217
Lazaro Ruda
Soap box: TheLivingSea.com

#2 herbko

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Posted 12 June 2002 - 08:53 AM

Wow! A great way to spend a day. Nice trip report and photos.
I'll have to remember this if I ever find myself down in that area.

Herb
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