DRY TORTUGAS , Fla.--To see this remote national park the way landlubbers do, I took the $85 package offered by Sunny Days Catamarans in Key West. We would sail out to Garden Key, explore the 19th Century fort on the 10-acre island, eat lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon snorkeling or just enjoying the experience of occupying a sandy scrap of subtropical land 70 miles west of the populated Florida Keys.
The prisoners incarcerated at Ft. Jefferson and the soldiers encamped there during the Civil War hardly could enjoy the place at all. Led by Ponce de Leon, the 16th Century Spanish explorers who discovered the seven major islands in the Dry Tortugas group, gave them the name because sea turtles (Las Tortugas) were everywhere. "Dry," of course, served as a sort of warning on the nautical charts: No fresh water here.
Construction of the fort began in 1846. It was meant to control shipping lanes into the Gulf of Mexico and protect Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade. Historically, pirates often preyed upon merchant vessels passing that way. Although construction continued for the next 30 years, the fort never was completed and its cannons never fired in anger. Union Army deserters were banished to the virtually escape-proof outpost. Guards and the fort construction workers suffered nearly as much as the prisoners. Fresh water remained scarce. Yellow fever ravaged convict, worker and warder alike, beginning in August 1867 and continuing through the first two weeks of November.
After the post surgeon succumbed to the epidemic, Dr. Samuel Mudd, imprisoned for alleged complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was released from his cell-like quarters to perform medical duties at the fort. Along with a doctor who rushed from Key West, Mudd worked tirelessly to comfort and heal the fever victims.
Mudd had been sentenced to life at Ft. Jefferson because, soon after the president was killed, he treated and sheltered Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mudd denied that he knew who Booth was or what he had done. Because of the questionable circumstances surrounding his arrest and his humanitarian service at the fort, President Andrew Johnson fully pardoned the physician in 1869 and he went back to his home in Maryland.
Visitors today see an intact fort, a fine example of the fortress-building art, circa the 1840s. Improvements in armament made it obsolete, and the army abandoned Ft. Jefferson in 1874. In another 34 years, it was designated as a wildlife refuge to protect the nesting sooty tern from egg collectors. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the Dry Tortugas a national monument in 1935, breathing new life into the crumbling fort. National park status came along in 1992, to preserve not only the bricks and mortar of a historic site but the natural features as well, including all of the islands and the water surrounding them.
My explorations were confined to Garden Key, which certainly had more than one afternoon's worth of things to see.
"The fort is a tremendous historic opportunity for anyone who has an interest in American history," said supervisory park ranger Paul Taylor. "You'd certainly want to reserve time for looking through its nooks and crannies."
And then, of course, the visitor should "get wet" and take a look at the underwater life in the shallows beyond the shore. "There's always fish and coral to see," Taylor pointed out, "although the very best coral in the park is not hanging right off the beach here."
On calm days, private boaters and sometimes excursion companies, too, move out to the vicinity of Loggerhead Key. There divers can explore the wreck of the windjammer Avanti, which sank in January 1907 en route from Pensacola to Montevideo with a load of lumber. "Of course, private boaters have access to 100 square miles of coral reef habitat," Taylor said, "world class snorkeling and diving."
I settled in on the Garden Key beach and watched for wildlife. I saw no turtles. Early explorers and later hunters nearly wiped out the population, but the islands still hold a fair-sized population of sea turtles, green turtles, loggerheads and hawksbills, I was told.
Frigate birds with long, forked tails hovered above the water, hardly moving, before diving suddenly to snatch a passing fish. Sandpipers formed long, precise columns along the beach, changing the patterns of their queues each time the water lapped at their feet. Pelicans stood like sentinels on the pilings of excursion-boat docks.
It was the wrong time of year to catch the sooty tern nesting frenzy, when 100,000 parents take over adjoining Bush Key and drop their eggs in shallow depressions. And the migratory birds would not be stopping to catch their breath on the Dry Tortugas until April and May. "In the spring, migratory songbirds pass through on their way from South America, Central America and Mexico on up to the rest of North America," Taylor told me. "So in April and May, there's an impressive array of songbirds to view, and there's also an impressive array of birdwatchers. That's the height of the season. The beginning of good weather and the birding season both kind of come together at the same time, and there's just lots of people here."
I was on the scene in November, when visitors could scatter and find their little spots of exclusive territory and corners of solitude within the quiet fort.
The Dry Tortugas had always been one of the more exotic sites on my national park wish list. I hadn't expected even this much company or so many vestiges of civilization. The two-hour crossing from Key West did smack of adventure. Seas were rough and the Fast Cat tumbled through scores of 5-foot waves. It would be the same going back. A day of enlightenment and relaxation followed by a wild ride on the high seas -- a national park experience unlike any other.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times