Spring Break with Wildlife

Scrap Cancun, forget Acapulco and get rid of the Caribbean cruise. This spring break, pack up some camping gear and head south to one of the state’s most beautiful natural destinations: Dry Tortugas National Park.

Long before it attracted the average

Joe and the rich and famous, the Dry Tortugas were a dumping ground for murderers, rapists, confederate soldiers, and other criminals.

The Tortugas’ most famous prisoner was Samuel Mudd, a Maryland doctor charged with treason for conspiring to kill President Abraham Lincoln. According to historical records, Mudd treated John Wilkes Booth shortly after the assassination.

But since one of its islands became a national monument in the 1930s, the Caribbean island cluster has been a tourist hot spot, attracting the likes of Ernest Hemingway, President Harry Truman, Queen Elizabeth II, Renee Russo and National Geographic researchers.

The remote seven-island chain lies about 70 miles west of Key West. The islands’ aquamarine waters, marine diversity, unique wildlife and solace lure snorkelers, divers, birdwatchers and other nature-lovers from all over the world. About 94,000 people visit the Tortugas each year.

Gulls, sooty terns, brown pelicans, and the blackpoll warbler are some of the native and migratory birds that spend their winters on the Tortugas. Bush Key, which lies east of Garden Key, is the world’s nesting center for the sooty tern, a black-and white bird native to the Caribbean Sea and the west and central regions of the Atlantic Ocean. About 100,000 flock to the key between March and September to lay their eggs.

The Tortugas are also the nesting grounds for several endangered sea turtles, including the loggerhead and green species.

The Caribbean-blue waters surrounding the Tortugas are home to a rich underwater ecosystem that includes sharks, sea anemones, tarpons, coral reefs, and some dolphins. Two shipwrecks lie off the coasts of the keys.

The Tortugas, the most inaccessible national park in the United States, is about 100 square miles in size. The tiny landmasses of coral and sand are Garden Key, Bush Key, Middle Key, Loggerhead Key, East Key, Long Key and Hospital Key.

Garden Key, the largest, is home to Fort Jefferson, the largest 19th century citadel in the coastal United States. The 16-million brick fortress has a lighthouse, a moat, about a half-dozen iron cannons, and iron and wooden carts.

The park is not accessible by land. You’ll need to take a ferry or a seaplane. The ferry ticket for overnight stay is $130. It’s much cheaper than the $329 plane ride, but if you can afford the airfare, take it. As the low-flying Cessnas skim the Marquesas Islands on the way to the fort, one can spot shipwrecks, nurse sharks, dolphins, stingrays and loggerhead turtles. The sunken Spanish galleons, the Atocha and the Margarita, are also visible from the seaplanes.

Occasionally, pilots have spotted marijuana bails and Cuban refugees. Migrant smugglers will sometimes drop them off at the Marquesa Keys.

The only camping grounds are on Garden Key. Conditions are rudimentary: toilets, no showers. The park offers about ten camping spots at $3 a night per person. Food is not sold on the island so you need to bring your own. The picnic area has several barbecue grills, and all trash must be carried off the island.

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the keys in 1513 and named them Las Tortugas (the turtles) because of the sea turtle population living on them. The islands, dry, barren and devoid of water, were part of the Spanish crown until the Spaniards sold the territory to the United States in 1819.

The first structure built on the islands was the lighthouse on Garden Key, which dates back to 1826. The U.S. government began the construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in 1846 to protect the commercial ships traveling through the Florida Straits from the Mississippi River to the eastern coast of the United States. Lack of funds and an outbreak of yellow fever halted construction for a few years in the mid-1800s.

The first garrison of soldiers arrived in 1861. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson became the only Union fort in the southern United States. Between 600 and 1,200 soldiers lived at the fort during the war. After weathering several yellow fever epidemics, the army abandoned the citadel in 1873. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decreed Fort Jefferson a national monument. Since 1960, when the government formally drew the park limits, the boundaries have changed to protect marine life. The area was elevated to National Park status in 1992.