Dry Tortugas National Park

“Let’s dive us up a shipwreck!”

My time in Dry Tortugas seemed to fly by. My days consisted of diving, eating, doing chores, and sleeping. To start it off, I stayed up until 4:00 am packing my bags in California then I drove to the airport for a long flight to Florida. Upon arrival, I discovered my bags had been lost in transit so I found my hotel in Key West and hoped they would arrive soon. Then, I walked to the grocery store to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables for the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) crew because they had already been out on the island for a month and were running low on perishables. Since the island is a tiny, remote historical park with no stores, all supplies have to be brought in.

Luckily, my bags were sent on a later flight and delivered to my hotel in the middle of the night, just in time for me to leave at 6:00 am to catch a ferry to the island.  After checking in to the Yankee Freedom Ferry to Dry Tortugas I boarded with Melissa Memory, an archaeologist from Everglades National Park.  She was coming out to dive with the SRC team for the week as well. It was nice to have a travel companion on the 2 hour trip and to learn about the resources from her. Outside on the deck, I was surprised by the warm, unfamiliar breeze; the clear, shallow, turquoise waters; flying fish; and an occasional sea turtle.

When the island came into view, it was much smaller than I expected, but I was looking forward to diving, exploring, and living there for a week. Walls were built around the perimeter of the island comprising Fort Jefferson, complete with a moat and drawbridge. I thought a moat in the middle of the ocean was amusing, but it added an extra, medieval feeling of security. 

Dry Tortugas is located 70 miles west of the coast of Florida, along the edge of the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean. This location brought a large number of vessels through the surrounding waters. Early on, Spanish explorers and merchants used the shipping channel to travel along the Gulf Coast.

The United States constructed Fort Jefferson in the mid 19th century as a military fortress, strategically placed in the Tortugas to protect the valuable shipping channel. Since the islands and reefs are low and flat, they were a navigational hazard to ships passing through the 75 mile wide straits between the gulf and the ocean. These high risk reefs create a natural “ship trap” and have been the site of hundreds of shipwrecks.

After stepping onto the island, I immediately dropped off my bags and grabbed my dive gear to set out on the boat with the crew. Driving out to the site I got acquainted with the SRC team, Dave Conlin, Tara Van Niekerk, Paul O’Dell, Bert Ho, and Art Ireland while learning about their research methods.

From 1993 to 1995, the SRC conducted remote sensing at Dry Tortugas, towing a magnetometer behind a boat over the reef within the park boundary. A magnetometer measures the intensity and direction of a magnetic field. Since most ships have a significant amount of iron on them, they show magnetic variations, or anomalies, in the data collected. Our job was to dive anomaly locations to inspect the ocean floor for shipwrecks or other significant archaeological finds.

We used GPS to locate anomalies. Once we were within 30 ft of the location, we threw a buoy marker overboard that was tethered to a dive weight with about 100 feet of line. Then, we descended down the line with a reel and performed a circle search pattern looking for anything interesting on the sea floor.

Often times, nothing was found because the object causing the anomaly was buried in sand or the device picked up natural magnetic changes in the earth’s field.  However, that’s why it is necessary to jump in the water and check out magnetic anomaly because they don’t always reveal the remains of a shipwreck or cultural materials.

There are over 40 known shipwrecks in the park, and while I was there we discovered 3 new anchors. Before I arrived, the SRC found 2 shipwrecks, 3 cannons, and anchors. In addition to diving and snorkeling to look at anomalies, we dove on known shipwrecks to monitor their condition and see if they were still intact and undisturbed. On one occasion, we went back to document the cannons and anchors they recently found. The team dove with tape measures and waterproof paper to sketch out the artifacts as I snorkeled around to see if there were any more items around.

I made three to six dives a day, and on each dive, before we hit the water, the chief of the Submerged Recourses Center, Dave Conlin, would call out, “Let’s dive us up a shipwreck!”

Diving in Florida was impressive. First of all, I’ve never been diving in only a bathing suit with no wet or dry suit, and I must say-it was so much more convenient. Having learned to dive wearing a two piece 7 millimeter suit with a hood, gloves, booties, and still shivering, it was refreshing to feel the water on my skin and still not be cold.  Also, it made rinsing gear and toting it around a breeze. I still love California diving, but there is something nice about warm water diving. Plus, when you come up from a dive the sun continues to keep you warm. I put on plenty of sunscreen but still ended up with a deep tan line in the shape of an “X” on my back from my swimsuit.

After a day of diving I also got the chance to walk on Loggerhead Island and climb up the brick tower lighthouse which was built in 1858 to warn incoming vessels of the dangerous reefs.  It was sweltering hot inside, but the view made it worth it

Also, on a dive, we encountered a lionfish, one of the most venomous fish, among some metal. I was slightly confused when I saw Dave chasing it until I remembered that a friend of mine who went to the Bahamas told me the lionfish are invasive and they are working on eradicating them.

The fish was removed, but we saw three more during a dive the next day. Dave captured another one, but only after it used him for shelter. After his close brush with the lionfish, we decided we needed the proper equipment to remove them safely and effectively.

The next day, someone reported a lionfish near the dock. Law Enforcement Ranger, Chris Ziegler, and I dove with scuba gear and nets to catch the fish and found not just one, but two. Unfortunately the holes in our nets were too big to capture the fish so the next day divers went back to that spot and removed the lionfish successfully.

Three enormous Goliath Groupers live under the dock at Dry Tortugas. I can honestly say I have never seen a fish so massive, they looked like cows underwater! After the unsuccessful lionfish hunt, we swam around under the pier to see if we could spot the grouper but they weren’t there. The water was so thick with tiny fish, I could hardly see! Also, the tarpon there were unafraid and I could swim right alongside them.

During the last day we packed gear, cleaned the living quarters, and Bert and I scrubbed the bottom of the boat. After that, I had some time to explore the fort and visitor’s center before I hopped on the boat back to Key West.

I would like to thank Dave Conlin, Art Ireland, Bert Ho, Tara Van Niekerk, Paul O’Dell, Melissa Memory, Chris Zeigler, Shauna Cotrell, and the Yankee Freedom Ferry crew for an amazing and unforgettable experience at Dry Tortugas National Park!