Dry Tortugas National Park is on an island 70 miles from Key West, closer to Cuba than the American mainland. These islands were discovered by Ponce de Leon twenty years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the new world. We decided to boat out there to look for the fountain of youth and see the picturesque fort that make this place a national park. De Leon named this island tortugas, the Spanish word for turtles, because of all the yummy turtles he found here. Seamen were always hungry for fresh meat and the turtles were especially appealing, because they could be kept alive for months at a time aboard ship. The word "dry" was added by mapmakers later to let sailors no that there was no fresh water there.
Because the island had a strategic location between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, Fort Jefferson was constructed there, beginning in 1846. As aerial views illustrate, the fort is a huge octagon and occupied almost the entire island. The fort was made with 16 million bricks. At first the bricks came from Pensacola, but when northern Florida seceded from the Union and the Keys did not, the bricks were imported from Maine. A kiln was built to heat the cannon balls before they were fired. If they were hot enough, they could set the boats they hit afire. Cisterns were built into each major support of the fort, but the weight of the structure caused all but three of them to crack. The workers there ended up boiling sea water and condensing the steam for drinking water, but even this supply was often full of mosquito larva. The fort was never finished or fully armed, but its mere presence had to have an effect on anyone sailing by.
After the Civil War it was used as a prison. The most famous prisoner was Dr. Mudd, the man who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln. He was charged as an accomplice in the assassination and sentenced to spend his life at Fort Jefferson. But after the doctor and all the nurses there died of yellow fever, Dr. Mudd was asked to help the rest of the soldiers stationed there. His outstanding medical service, resulted in termination of his sentence and he returned home to his family.
After visiting this huge fort, Franklin Roosevelt designated it as a national park. Today two boats a day sail to the park from Key West and some of the passengers stay overnight camped around the fort. They have to bring all the water they will use and pay $3/day for the privilege of being there. One side of the fort has a nice, sandy beach and the reefs the fort was built upon are a snorkeling delight. Nearby islands are bird sanctuaries closed to human visitors. Refugees fleeing Cuba often end up coming ashore here. We saw some remnants of the boats they used to make the trip. Currently, our government policy dictates that if they come ashore, they get to stay in the US. If they are caught while still at sea, they are sent home. The guide referred to this as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. Since there are few agents in this area to catch the Cubans in transit, this is a good spot for them to aim for. Judging by the decrepit vessels they use, it is amazing that they can aim for anything at all.
Weather forecasters missed the mark today and the beautiful sunny day turned into clouds and roiling waters. A number of our fellow passengers spent some of the trip hanging over the back of the boat, reliving the breakfast they had just eaten. The overcast made it cool to snorkel, so we spent our precious time there exploring the fort before it was time to board again and bounce our way back to Key West. The crew had encouraged dramamine consumption, so the return trip was less nauseating.