By morning we headed the last 20 miles to the Dry Tortugas on a perfect broad reach (this point of sail is easy and beautiful). The morning light greeted us warmly, and we awakened to the color of exquisite blue waters all around us. A sea turtle, feasting on a school of small jellyfish, raised his head out of the water to say good morning. Being out there with nothing else to see in all directions but the glorious blue waters and clear sky was truly a spiritual experience. It felt cleansing to the soul, purifying to the mind. Nothing else to do out there but just be with the majesty of the sea. Lala finally really understood the sailor’s call to the sea.
And then, Land Ho! Fort Jefferson appears on the distant horizon! We’re almost there!! Or so it seemed. For hours we watched the fort and the island SLOWLY get bigger and bigger, until we finally made it to the entrance of the channel leading in to the anchorage. Even then it took us another hour to round the fort and pull in to the anchorage. We arrived around noon, exactly what we had predicted. We sailed the entire way, except for a very short stretch where the waters got confused and the sailing was so annoying we turned the motor on for a few minutes to power through. We feel a sense of happy accomplishment at reaching our goal, a tiny series of islands out in the “grand bleu”. Having another boat sailing with us, and another Vega at that, was very helpful. Thanks to Wes on Gemini Dreams for being such a great sailing buddy! By the way, there is a link to his blog in the links section on in the right hand column at the top.
The colors of the water here are unbelievable. The most delicious shades of aqua, turquoise, and deep clear blue surround us. We can’t stop being astonished at how beautiful the colors are. In the rest of the Keys the water are more often green, but here they are dreamy shades of turquoise. Color therapy!
The most prominent feature of the Dry Tortugas is Fort Jefferson, a brick fort built in the 1800’s to guard the Gulf of Mexico. Now it is a National Park and historic site. The little boy in Cap’t K. came out as we neared the fort — it had a moat, cannons, and a big lighthouse. How exciting to sail out to an island with a big fort on it! The fort has an excellent weather radio with a huge antenna that can get seven different weather stations in. They also post the local NOAA forecast in the visitor’s office daily. The best thing about the fort is the snorkeling, so definitely have mask, fins, and snorkel and an underwater camera. The fishing out here is excellent too so get your license and bring gear.
The local authorities commonly board and inspect the boats in the harbor. They are reputed to be very courteous, but have your boat in order and expect to be boarded & inspected. Cost to use the park is $5 per person and must be paid upon arrival. This can be done 24 hours a day by filling out an envelope form and dropping it with payment into a locked mailbox. The pass is good for seven days.
You can also camp in one of the few campsites right next to the fort. These are very nice, and there is sun shade on most of them, along with a barbecue grill and post for hanging a solar shower/backpack/etc. There are composting toilets for the campers to use after the ferry leaves, but everyone is expected to use the ferry’s toilets while the ferry is here. Unfortunately the fort runs a huge diesel electric generator 24hours per day, and it is close to the camp sites, so if you camp then you are listening to it for your entire stay.
Right next to Fort Jefferson is Bush Key, an island with no buildings on it that is closed to the public during the migration season. The entire island is covered in birds. Not that many bushes on the island, it should be called Bird Key. It is a major nesting area for many types of terns as well as hundreds of other birds. The birds flew around in a large circle over the island, thousands of them, day and night. It was like a giant rave party for the birds. The sound of the bird calls never stopped, even in the middle of the night. It was an amazing sight (and sounds). The anchorage was right next to the island, so we got to have a front seat watching the birds. We were also amazed to discover Magnificent Frigate birds soaring above the fort and the island. Magnificent is truly the best word to describe these large birds, who glide effortlessly and gracefully for hours on end without flapping their wings. One day we went to the far end of Bird Key in our dinghy and discovered a separate nesting area there that was the unique domain of the magnificent frigate birds.While mating, some of the birds (probably the males) get large red balloon like sacs protruding from their necks. It is a really unusual sight to see these giant black birds with big red balloons hanging from them.
We went ashore to the Fort and used the facilities aboard the fastcat (ferry boat from Key West). Everyone on the island is supposed to use the bathroom on the ferry when it is at the island. The campers use composting toilets after the fatcat leaves. While aboard, we got lunch in the cafeteria line. Great deli sandwiches in a make-it-yourself line with a free soda and glass of water and couple of cookies. There really is a free lunch somewhere in the world!
After we finished our lunch, we piled in the dinghy with Wes for an expedition over to Loggerhead Key. This is the westernmost of the Florida keys. The ferry does not go there, and since it is three miles away from the fort, most cruisers don’t go there either. It’s not accessible by kayak due to the wind and currents, unless you are crazy and don’t mind getting blown across the Gulf to Mexico. It was another island out of a romantic dream. 3 miles from Fort Jefferson, this island is ringed entirely by a white sand beach, and has a glorious 19th century lighthouse, and a little house for the lighthouse keeper in the middle of it.
Since we have the uber dinghy though, we set out on our exhibition across three miles of open blue water. Of course, I’d read horror stories about people in these keys who weren’t prepared for engine problems while dinghying around. One couple had set out in excitement for one of the little keys around the fort only to find their engine stopped a mile out. The current was setting them out to the gulf, and they were completely unprepared.
They didn’t have an anchor. They didn’t have oars. They didn’t have drinking water, and they didn’t have a radio! Luckily they got their motor to work before they hit the gulf stream! Anyway, I learned from them, and we were prepared with 200 feet of anchor line and an anchor, a handheld radio, flares, water, oars, life jackets, etc…
The weather was great, and we didn’t need any of the safety gear, but I was glad we have such a large and capable dinghy. It’s really a runabout, not a dinghy. We made it to Loggerhead without a problem. It was a lot father away than it looked.
We touched down on pristine coral sand beach and immediately started jumping up and down with joy. IT was so much nicer than For Jefferson’s Key. We remarked how many people go to the fort and never make it just three more miles to the very last key, which also happens to be the most beautiful of all. Tall coconut palms surrounded the 115’ solar electric lighthouse. The island even has a resident ranger in a sweet little house. Wouldn’t I like his job!
Walking around to explore this idyllic island, we were struck speechless by the amazing colors of the water. The west side of the island is sheltered from the predominantly east wind, and it is surrounded by an immense and complex reef. We circumnavigated the island. Coming back up the southeast side we found more shells and coral and sponges than we had ever seen before. The predominant east wind and waves bring all these sea treasures ashore in this one spot. Like kids on the beach we collected and compared our treasures.
Back at our landing spot at the dinghy we regrouped. Lala and Wes suited up for skin diving, and Capt’n K set out our sunbrella and a camp chair. Down he sat with a new book as they went snorkeling just a few feet from the beach and saw lots of brightly colored fish, gorgeous coral heads, and dancing sea fans. They also snorkeled near the long pier that juts out from one side of the island, and there Lala saw more fish than she’d ever seen. Thousands of fish were grouped under the pilings, including the BIGGEST FISH she’d ever seen. It was so big that when she first saw it she was afraid — it was almost as big as her. It was a least 4 feet long and must have weighed over a hundred pounds. They followed it around for a while, and Wes told Lala that it was a “Jewfish”, also known as a Goliath Grouper. When Lala got back to shore she ran up to K., who was in his “happy place” under a beach umbrella reading a book, and excitedly told him “I saw a fish THIS big”, and of course he couldn’t believe it until he saw it himself from the pier!
If the little boy in K. came out when we arrived at the big fort, the little girl in Lala came out while looking on the beach for seashells. The beach was covered in amazing shells, including big huge conch shells. We found dozens of them! Some of them were even still alive. At the end of the day, on Lala’s last stroll down the beach, she found right at the water line, a giant spiral shell just washed up by the sea only minutes before. This gracefully curved spiral had a creature living in it, so we ended up giving it back to the ocean. It was the biggest, most beautiful shell she’d ever found and she’s still squealing in delight over it!
Then we packed up and headed back to the anchorage near the fort. K was nervous about the run back because we got some sand into the prop when we had beached the dinghy. It was windward the whole way, and we were taking on spray, but the 15 horse pushed us right along into the chop without a problem. He’s really glad that we have such a capable dinghy! There’s no way we’d have been able to make this expedition without such a large and powerful dinghy and outboard. No wonder Loggerhead is so untouched! What a gift it was to enjoy and experience this amazing place.
More to come in our next posts, so stay tuned and check back! Make sure to leave a comment to say Hi and tell us that you stopped by for a read!