|From Key West we headed west 74 miles to the Dry Tortugas National Park with it's famous Fort Jefferson. The Dry Tortugas are actually the furthest of the Florida Keys, originally named Las Tortugas (the turtles) by explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. the word "dry" was later added to warn mariners of the lack of fresh water available.
The reefs surrounding the Tortugas helped to form one of the most strategic harbours in U.S. history, where Fort Jefferson was built. It was one of the largest forts ever built, taking 30 years (1846-1875). During the Civil War, the Tortugas was used by Union warships to blockade Southern shipping and as a prison, mainly for Union deserters.
The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. Mudd was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1890 and freed from the fort.
The Tortugas is home to Loggerhead, Green and Leatherback turtles and although we saw many, they were too quick for me to get any photos. The park is also home to 299 different species of birds, some who nest here and others migrating in the spring and fall. Some of the most common species are the Sooty Tern, the Magnificent Frigatebird, the Masked Booby, the Brown Noddy, the Ruddy Turnstone and the Brown Pelican. Both the sight and the sound of thousands of birds hovering over and nesting on a tiny island is amazing.
The Tortugas is also known for it's wonderful snorkeling. We had planned to do some but after our first swim off the boat we looked down and saw enormous Jewfish, larger than either of us, apparently harmless but none the less intimidating and decided against it. We watched schools of enormous fish leaping from the water and that was enough for us.
It was from here that we would set off on our longest crossing to date to either Isles Mujeres just off Cancun, Mexico (Plan A) or Cuba (Plan B), depending on a combination of weather and fuel consumption. Originally Plan B (Cuba) was the plan of choice so when we flew back to Canada we purchased a Cuba Courtesy Flag, Cuban charts and a Cuba Cruising Guide. However, once we read the cruising guide and learned more about the complex and expensive system of paperwork required for clearing in, moving about from port to port and clearing out of the country we preferred the Mexico option.