Photos of the day are here.
We were excited about our planned ferry ride out to the Dry Tortugas National Park today. The tiny key, sometimes called the “Guardian of the Gulf” is about 70 miles west of Key West and only accessible by boat or sea plane. The group of tiny islands are famous for their bird life, but we were most excited about the clear waters and reportedly good snorkeling.
We booked our tickets on the Yankee Freedom when we first arrived in Key West, and even though the weather forecast called for clouds and rain, it was the only chance to go. The alarm rang at 6, time enough to walk to the docks in time for the 7:30 AM check in. Walking in the early morning darkness, we encountered a crew of workers cleaning up the street mess of the previous evening’s revels. The young man said that first a crew blows the debris into the streets, then another crew hoses down the sidewalks with disinfectant, and finally the street sweepers scoop it all up into trucks to be hauled away to the landfill. Comparing the evening party on Duval street to this early morning clean-up was eye-opening.
Once on board the Yankee Freedom we settled in to a table on the upper decks and enjoyed the included breakfast while we motored out of the harbor. It was a pretty morning, but as we continued west the haze and fog over the seas were a bit of a disappointment.
After almost three hours at sea, we arrived at Fort Jefferson. From a distance, it is apparent that the fort encompasses almost the entire island, with just a few spits of sand and coral around the edges. Built in the mid-1800’s , the historic fort was constructed to protect the Gulf of Mexico shipping lanes, and was used as a prison during the Civil War. Constructed from more than 16 million bricks, with walls that are 8 feet thick, the fort was never actually completed. One of the most well known prisoners was Dr Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of participating in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln.
The islands were first discovered by Ponce De Leon in 1513 and named Las Tortugas because of the many turtles. It was called “Dry” because there was no fresh water on the islands. Our excursion included a tour of the fort and the guide told some great stories about the life of the more than 2000 people who lived there at one time. With the invention of the rifled cannon, the fort became obsolete because the thick walls could be penetrated. The Army abandoned the fort officially in 1974 and in 1908 Teddy Roosevelt established a wildlife refuge there to protect the many birds that used the tiny islands as a migratory resting place. It wasn’t until 1992 that Dry Tortugas became a National Park, one of the newest parks and one of the most remote.
The fort is an imposing structure, and is surrounded by a large moat. It seems a bit strange to have a moat surrounding a fort in the middle of the ocean, but it made for great photo opportunities, with lovely reflections of the bricks and the sea in the background. Originally the moat was planned as an outlet for sewage from inside the fort, but the design didn’t take into account the lack of high enough tides to carry the effluent out to sea. In this area, the tides are less than a foot. One of the many difficulties of living in the fort was the stench, and the salt that found it’s way into all the drinking water because of the poor design.
After our tour of the fort grounds, we went to one of the tiny beaches to snorkel along the moat wall and around some pilings. The reef was shallow and the water was moderately clear, but there were few fish to be seen. After some time we finally did see a few barracudas and some tiny silver fish in huge schools darting through the sandy channels among the corals. The water was cold as well, and after an hour or so, we had enough. We have our own snorkel gear, except for fins, and today we used the fins that were supplied along with the tour gear. The fins wore me out, and I don’t like using them at all, but Mo might decide to use them again. The biggest fish of the day was a giant grouper, estimated at more than 400 pounds, that we saw just lazing around near the pilings under the boat.
Lunch was provided with the trip as well, and it was really very good. As the boat left for Key West we found our upstairs table and settled in for the ride. This time our companions were an interesting family from the Midwest. I remember the woman most of all because she provided some crackers to me when I needed them most. I was sick, really uncomfortable with the rough ride home, and was freezing as well. I thought the trip back would never end. So much for me not getting sea sick anymore!
Once on shore, however, I recuperated quickly and enjoyed the walk home through town. We walked east on Simonton Street, another main road that we hadn’t managed to find previously. I saw a sign that said “Pelican Poop Shoppe” and couldn’t resist. What a magical find! Once inside the shop there were walls and walls of colorful metal sculptures, flags, flowers, fish, kitschy stuff but also quite lovely. A tiny sign led to the garden where a whole new world opened up before our eyes. The shop proprietor told the story of his father’s purchase of the building as a burned out, run down warehouse, and how he gutted it and rebuilt it. After 15 years of magic, the interior gardens have tropical plants that reach to the open sky, the old cistern is a deep reflecting pool, and the 21,000 square feet of living space around the garden houses 4 family members. It was a great example of the kind of artsy goofy people and places that can be hiding in Key West.
After that treat we ambled down to Whiteside Street, and feeling very hungry and tired, started looking for a place to eat. Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West is an icon, and we had passed it a couple of times on our previous walks. This time, however, we decided to brave the noise and crowds and go in for our supper. It was great, if a bit raunchy, bawdy, and very loud. I ordered the Sloppy Joe made famous in this very bar and it tasted just like a good sloppy joe should taste. We had a drink and listened to the very loud band singing a bit in between very dirty jokes and waved at the webcam. It was fun to do once, but we surely don’t have to do it again, and probably wouldn’t recommend the place to anyone.
Our day ended happily with a stroll back to our soft little blue and yellow room up the narrow staircase. Once again we were too tired to take advantage of the delightful little pool in the gardens below our window.