This week I arrived in paradise. Its other name? The Dry Tortugas, a group of seven, small, low-laying, sandy islands west of the Florida Keys. It is home to Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the United States, and critical habitat for nesting sea turtles, migratory sea birds, and endangered corals. To top it off, the waters are a crystalline aquamarine, the beaches are soft white sand, and the sky is as big as it gets. Like I said, paradise.
I left my new friends at the SRC early last Wednesday morning and was in Key West, Florida, by the afternoon. Kayla Nimmo, a biological technician for the South Florida Natural Resources Center, met me at the airport. She works on a variety of natural resource projects at Dry Tortugas National Park, which include monitoring sea turtles, seabirds, vegetation, reef fish, and corals, among other things. Thursday, bright and early, we boarded the ferry Yankee Freedom and were at Fort Jefferson by 10:30 am. I spent the day getting reacquainted with the fort and the current activities at the park, and accompanied Kayla to East Key in the late afternoon to monitor nesting activity of Green Turtles (more about that in upcoming blog entries). I visited Dry Tortugas National Park once before in 2007, and have wanted to return ever since. I am so thrilled to be spending the next three weeks here!
This place is magical for photographers, wildlife enthusiasts, divers, snorkelers, history buffs, and anyone who can appreciate the beauty of being on small, sandy islands that are literally in the middle of the ocean. These islands are located on the edge of the natural shipping passage where the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the western Caribbean Sea meet, 70 miles from Key West and about 90 miles from Cuba. It is the only moorage between the Rio Grande and Chesapeake Bay that is large enough to contain a battleship fleet. This strategic position inspired the construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key to protect the trade routes to the southeastern United States. The project began in 1846, but was never fully completed. Today, the fort is slowly succumbing to the erosive powers of nature and time; however, the Park is committed to preserving the fort for future generations. Current conservation efforts involve bringing in teams of masons to repair the crumbling brick walls. The fort, which is now frequented by visitors and provides housing to National Park Service staff, was used as a military prison until the late 19th century. Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson, was designated a National Park in 1992 and covers 100 square miles (only 0.15 sq. miles of that is terrestrial). Underwater, one can find beautiful reefs and lots of shipwrecks–shallow shoals and hurricanes caused ships to wreck in this area throughout history.
It is not simply the remoteness and history of the Tortugas that is so awe-inspiring. The quality of light is so different from anywhere I have been on the mainland. The air, while humid, is refreshed by ocean winds that bring in dramatic cloud formations, which change colors throughout the day like a mood ring on a teenage girl. The white sand, which can be blindingly bright at midday, turns a deep gold as the sun’s rays illuminate it late in the afternoon. The ephemeral nature of the islands themselves is fascinating; in fact, several islands have been swept away by storms since the discovery of the Dry Tortugas by Ponce de Leon in 1513. And the water—Oh that water! It is the type of water that makes you believe in mermaids and Atlantis–like peering into another world with lenses made of turquoise glass. This is a truly awe-inspiring place.
Three weeks in paradise—not a bad start to the summer! I can’t wait to get to know everyone here and explore the park, both topside and underwater. My days will be filled with turtle monitoring, diving, snorkeling, photography, exploring, and learning the history of this one-of-a-kind landmark surrounded by some of the most pristine coral reefs in the United States. Hint: underwater photos coming soon!
To learn more about Dry Tortugas National Park, please visit http://www.nps.gov/drto/index.htm