We worked our way down the Florida Keys to Key West singing “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” But our time in Margaritaville was not spent carousing and drinking; we spent a few hours window shopping and looking at outdoor sculptures with our granddaughters. That evening, we called it a night before 9 pm with great anticipation. We had the alarm clock set to 5:30 am. We were going to the Dry Tortugas – finally.
The Dry Tortugas may be the most remote national park in the east. Tortugas means “turtle” and dry means that there is no fresh water. The Dry Tortugas lie 70 miles west of Key West. The national park is mostly open water with several small islands. Garden Keys is the only one accessible by commercial ferry, the Yankee Freedom. Yes, you can go with a commercial seaplane, but if you think the boat is expensive, you don’t even want to ask about the cost of flying.
The boat trip takes two and a half hours. Because we were camping, we had to arrive at the terminal at 6:30 am to load our gear on the boat. The boat leaves at 7:30 and they serve breakfast on the boat. Most people just go for the day, arriving at 10:30 am and getting back on the boat by 2:45 pm. We thought that there was too much to do for just four hours and decided to camp.
After the day trippers get off the boat, a park ranger meets the campers and explains the camping rules to those of us staying overnight. Ranger Williams is the law enforcement ranger on the island and also the EMT. “If you have a medical emergency in the middle of the night, come and knock on my door,” he said.
“Also, from time to time, there may be Cubans refugees landing on Garden Keys. If that happens, come and get me. I call the Coast Guard who checks them out.” None of the campers expected this as part of a safety lecture. I was flabbergasted. The “chug” to the left is an example of the type of boat they use to escape Cuba.
Though the island is further away from Cuba than Key West, there are fewer Coast Guard ships patrolling the area and so they have more of a chance to get “one dry foot” on land. And that’s all the Cuban refugees need to be on their way to permanent residency and citizenship.
So while the rangers are safely tucked away in their air conditioned apartments in Fort Jefferson, the campers would be the first line of defense in case Cubans landed. It was an exciting prospect but no one landed in the middle of the night.
We set up our tent under palm trees and went to explore the island. First, we checked out the bird life. Even bird newbies can recognize the magnificent frigates, which seem to float overhead. Bu there were pelicans, black skimmers, plovers, and sanderlings, just for a start.
The beach is lovely and we snorkeled. Lenny is an old pro and took off around the various structures that hold corals and fish life. I gave snorkeling a try. My first attempt resulted in tripping over the fins and falling into the water. I got rid of the fins. On the second attempt, I got water into the mask and into my nose. But after I tightened the mask, the third time was a charm. I actually saw fish and coral. Snorkeling worked.
After the ferry left with the day trippers, I thought that the campers would have the island to ourselves. But seaplanes brought more tourists for a couple of hours. Campers on private boats came ashore. But the island was definitely quieter We ate a cold dinner under a full moon. The wind had died down and it was warm. I walked around the island, just listening to the waves. Finally, I reluctantly went into my tent to go to sleep.