Last Days at Fort Jefferson

A few days ago, I tagged along with Tracy Zeigler, (Fisheries Biologist for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks) as she observed a group of sea grass researchers on research dives. They are conducting an ongoing project to monitor sea grass abundance and cover of other benthic organisms in the region, and on this trip they also installed buoys to mark transects that they will return to next year. They had been in the Tortugas for a couple of days, based on a 45-foot liveaboard out of Key West called the Explorer II. The group is from Florida International University, and included Kirk Gastrich, staff biologist in Dr. Mike Heithan’s lab, Jenn Sweatman, PhD Student, Elizabeth “Z” Lacey, PhD candidate, Justin Campbell, PhD candidate, and Rachel Decker, a research assistant in the Fourqurean Lab. They were extremely friendly and it was great to observe them in action. The captain of the liveaboard, Bernie Altmeier, has been captaining boats specifically for research cruises for years up and down the eastern seaboard. Tracy and I snorkeled alongside the divers on their shallow dives to observe their methodology, and they were great about having me shooting them paparazzi-style (check out the photos of them in action below). A big thank you goes out to the team for being so welcoming!

After shuttling Jeff Reckner and Zach Gibson to Loggerhead key, where they are working on preservation of the historic buildings on the island, Kayla and I had some time to go snorkeling and explore the shallows in the park, looking for lionfish and good photo spots. We met up with the Spree, a diving liveaboard out of Texas, and snorkeled alongside their divers on the Windjammer site, the wreck of Avanti, then parted ways to find some other shallow sites in the area. We ended up at some beautiful, clear and calm areas with lots of coral and fish.

After a week and half of being up at sunrise and working in the field all day, I finally had a chance to hop on one of the guided tours of Fort Jefferson offered by the crew of the ferry Yankee Freedom II. Our guide, Chelsea Barattini, was very enthusiastic despite the blazing heat, and clearly has a genuine interest in the history of the fort. She shared lots of interesting anecdotes about the construction, historical uses and one of the fort’s well-known prisoners, Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd was imprisoned at the fort for sympathizing with the confederacy during the Civil War, but was pardoned after his work during the Yellow Fever outbreak that devastated the fort’s population in the mid 1860s. I decided to take the seaplane through Key West Seaplane Adventures back to Key West on Monday, where I will meet up with the M.V. Fort Jefferson and a group of sea turtle researchers led by USGS Biologist Kristen Hart for the next 10 days. The flight was awesome; seeing the Dry Tortugas from the air really put their diminutive size and extreme isolation into perspective. It is a very different experience from taking the ferry, and if you ever have the opportunity I highly recommend flying!

Now I am sitting in a café in Key West, while a thunderstorm booms outside. Tonight begins the next part of my adventure!


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