Florida 2018: Day 7 - Dry Tortugas


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Florida 2018: [Day 1: Murfreesboro] [Day 2: Merritt Island] [Day 3: Riviera Beach] [Day 4: Key Largo] [Day 5: Key Largo] [Day 6: Key West] [Day 7: Dry Tortugas] [Day 8: Orlando] [Day 9: Columbia] [Day 10: Cincinnati]

Thursday, July 26, 2018: Shortly before 7:00 AM, we left the hotel on foot.
We headed to the marina where this statue of Henry Flagler greets visitors.
We checked in for our trip on the Yankee Freedom, the Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry. We were assigned boarding cards 40 and 41, which meant that we got to board in the second wave of passengers. So get there early, gentle reader.
There was a poster for the restaurant we had already chosen to visit. Note the small print that turtle races are only held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Sadly, this is a lie. They are held every single weeknight. Every one.
We found a seat in the spacious waiting room and Debbie calmed her nerves by snacking on some peanut M&Ms from a vending machine.
Our tour guide, Hollywood, came out and gave us lots of information about how our day would go.
We started boarding not long after 7:30 AM, ...
... and immediately helped ourselves to the breakfast buffet. There was cereal, ..
... sliced ham, hard-boiled eggs, cheese cubes, fruit salad, bagels, yogurt, orange juice, milk, and all the fixings.
We left the dock before 8:00 AM and were on our way.
On the starboard side is Sunset Key, right offshore.
On the port side is the town of Key West.
We had pretty great seats in the front corner of the boat, with a table for six all to ourselves.
About 45 minutes into the trip, we could see the Marquesas Keys in the distance.
In the main cabin where we were, some passengers were enjoying a nap.
An informational video played when we got closer to the island. It told us what to expect on the island and where things were.
The front of the boat had an open observation area. Check out the Star Wars shorts that the kid on the left is wearing. Do those come in adult sizes?
The Dry Tortugas consists of several small islands. Here's one.
Here's another.
If you zoom in it, you can see all the birds who are enjoying the fact that the tide isn't currently covering up the sand, because this island is underwater twice a day.
Off in the distance, we could see Bush Key and Garden Key, our destination.
Garden Key is home to Fort Jefferson.
We arrived by 10:30, passing the south beach ...
... and the south coaling dock ruins, ...
... before coming around to the main dock, ...
... and moored near the boat house.
A sea plane was parked off to our right, ...
... as was this fantastic flamingo float.
We were off the ship by 10:45 AM, ...
... and on the path to the north beach immediately.
We had brought our own snorkel gear, so we didn't have to wait 20 minutes for the crew to start handing out loaner gear.
Only a couple people were in the water ahead of us, ...
... and we pretty much had the water to ourselves when we got started.
We were still alone when we started our snorkel ...
... and we headed to the north coaling dock ruins.
Birds stood guard along the wall.
Underwater, we were surrounded by thousands of tiny fish.
That fish on the left is a porkfish juvenile.
Lots more tiny fish.
We saw several tarpon, which was cool. These things are about four feet long and are fun to watch swim by.
The artificial reef caused by the dock ruins is very pretty, so you almost don't even notice that most of the rocks are actually concrete or bricks.
Here's a chub, ...
... and here's another.
Here's a discarded propeller.
Here's what the coaling dock ruins look like above water, ...
... and here's what they look like below water.
We were the only ones here except for lots and lots of fish.
Entire groups of various types of fish gathered in the shade under the dock supports.
Barracuda!
Here's a closer look at the things growing on the dock supports.
Here are some more chubs.
Here are some Christmas tree worms on brain coral.
This impossibly tiny sergeant major was no more than an inch long. We watched him and several of his very tiny friends for a while.
Here's some pretty coral.
This is a juvenile cocoa damselfish.
Here are some mollusks of some sort living among the coral.
We popped up to get oriented ...
... then back down again.
Here's a cool ruin of some sort.
This green stuff was interesting.
This is probably a black grunt.
All attempts to take a photo that was half above and half below water failed, but here's the best result.
That's a porkfish on the right. It's the first time we had seen that fish, and we saw them everywhere we snorkeled this week.
Oh, those wicked black spiny sea urchins. There weren't a lot of them around, but they were there.
Tom says, "What's up?"
This is a rainbow parrotfish.
Another tarpon.
After snorkeling the north coaling dock ruins, we headed to the fort's moat wall on the north beach.
The base of the moat wall is a snorkeler's dream. The base forms a three-foot wide shelf about four feet below the water surface, then it drops off again another five to eight feet. Here's the base shelf, ...
... and here's the moat wall.
This is a bar jack.
Here's a white grunt.
This is a better view of the base of the moat wall. Stones and bricks have toppled into the water over the years, so that's what you're seeing in the bottom of this photo.
We rounded the first corner and started along the next section of wall.
Tiny fish on the moat ledge.
In this section, there are a couple of ledges by the wall.
The moat wall used to be intact enough to walk around the entire fort, but parts of it have fallen into disrepair. This section is still above water but is no longer structurally sound.
This is the first time we've seen a French angelfish juvenile.
It was really interesting to see live brain coral. Look at the detail on this photo.
We don't know what that bright yellow thing is, but it's probably an anemone of some sort.
Here are some bar jacks with some bluestripe or yellow jacks.
At this corner of the fort, we got some photos of one of the places where sea water can move into and out of the moat area.
Swimming and snorkeling in the moat is forbidden, so we just peered in from the outside of the wall.
There's a queen conch living happily in the turtle grass, ...
... and here's a pair of them possibly getting busy. Or maybe fighting. Or perhaps just passing by.
Here's one of the broken sections of moat wall. Small fish looked out at us from the crevices.
This sign correctly says, "Area Closed."
So does this one. It was probably above water at some point.
This is a rainbow wrasse juvenile.
Looking behind us, we spotted a seaplane coming in for landing.
Having snorkeled most of the moat wall, we followed the snorkel map instructions to swim in a straight line from the south beach's wall to where some additional coral would be.
This route took us over fields and fields of turtle grass. This little fish blended in with the grass really well. No idea what he is though.
We got to a reef but we aren't sure if that was the right location. There wasn't much there except for this impressive collection of Christmas tree worms on this coral.
We think this little camouflaged guy is a bluelip parrotfish initial phase, if our reef fish identification guide is to be believed.
On the swim back to the fort, we passed another couple of conchs.
We neared the south beach, which was a popular swimming spot.
Yet another barracuda. We saw a lot of them, and we later heard many people mention seeing them. Excited kids kept telling passersby, "We saw the baby barracuda! Did you?" Yes, we saw it.
We saw a couple of molted snake skins, but no snakes, fortunately.
Next, we headed to the south coaling dock ruins.
Birds were evenly perched all along the walls.
We saw a couple more tarpons. This isn't a great photo but it's nice to remember how many we saw.
Here's an underwater shot.
This coral had several Christmas tree worms on it.
The visibility here wasn't good so we didn't stick around long. Our tour guide had told us that one was likely to have better visibility than the other, depending on the water currents.
So we ended up being very lucky that we started on the north beach and followed the current down to the south beach.
Like the north ruins, there were huge schools of thousands of tiny fish along the dock wall as we swam back to the beach.
Around 12:30, after 90 minutes of snorkeling, we got out of the water to clean ourselves up a bit for lunch. We rinsed the sand off of our feet using the saltwater hoses on the dock then went aboard for the lunch buffet.
The lunch buffet consisted of breads, lunch meats, cheese slices, condiments, fruit, cookies, and cold beverages. We filled our plates and ate lunch at the picnic table where we had left our gear on arrival.
The island has plenty of picnic tables so there was no problem claiming that one as our own. We left our snorkeling equipment out to dry after lunch.
It was 1:00 PM when we finished lunch, so we took a quick peek at Fort Jefferson.
The moat was filled with beautiful anemones.
Look closer.
Look even closer. There were several of these that looked like crowns in the water and were about the size of a crown.
Come on in!
We took a quick peek to the right at the lighthouse and visitor center, ...
... and to the left at the fort interior. Guided and self-guided tours were available, but we were just here for the snorkeling.
We decided to spend our remaining time enjoying the water, ...
... so we went over to the south beach and spent some time playing.
Seaplanes came and went all day, bringing passengers back and forth from the mainland.
We got out of the water after a half hour and passed this sign that shows the layout of Garden Key.
It was really easy to get cleaned up after visiting.
First, we rinsed the sand off of our legs and feet with the saltwater hoses on the dock (like the woman in the center of this photo is doing), then we used the freshwater showers at the back of the boat to get clean (visible just to the lower right of the flag on the boat), ...
... then we used the boat house changing rooms to get into dry clothes. All visitors to the island used the restrooms on the boat for the entire time that it was docked, even those who had not used the ferry to get here.
Now that we were clean and fresh, we decided to use our remaining time to take a quick visit to the visitor center.
If we had a National Parks passport, ...
... this would have been our oppurtunity to get three different stamps: Garden Key Lighthouse, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Underground RR Freedom Network.
Oh, magnificent frigatebirds, how we love you so. We had last seen them in the Galápagos the previous year.
There was a lionfish in a tank to show us what this highly invasive fish looks like so we could be on the lookout for one.
This display showed how the thin sand bar between Garden Key and Bush Key has moved, grown, or disappeared over the years.
This display explained why this location was such an ideal location for a fort, even though it seems to be in the middle of nowhere.
When we were done, we packed up our stuff ...
... and found a seat in front of the food buffet where we knew we wouldn't have to sit with other people.
This location gave us a chance to see the sign warning about lionfish and begging snorkelers to notify a ranger if you spot one.
We departed around 2:45 and it would take about 2 hrs and 45 minutes to get back to Key West. Many people napped, ...
... and we gave it an unsuccessful shot as well.
As Key West came into view, we went out to the front of the boat to enjoy the sun and breeze and view.
We could see Fort Zachary Taylor where we had snorkeled the day before.
There's the Key West cruise ship harbor, where there were no cruise ships for the two days we were in town, fortunately.
We passed Sunset Key again, ...
... and then Wisteria Island.
There's Mallory Square, ...
... and Sunset Pier.
We passed several waterfront resorts with tiny beaches and marked swimming areas. If we ever came back, we'd look into staying at one of these.
There's the Coast Guard.
We caught a glimpse of Turtle Kraals, including the upstairs bar area.
We were docked before 5:30.
It was a quick walk back to our hotel, where we washed ourselves and our gear thoroughly, and hung it all out on our tiny fence to dry.
On our way to dinner, we passed this series of mileage markers.
If you look closely, here's Ocean City where we had been three months earlier.
There's Fortville, Indiana, which isn't far from where we live.
We arrived at Turtle Kraals and they didn't have an available table in the main dining room, ...
... so we headed up to the Tower Bar. It was extremely hot with no shade up there, ...
... so we went back to main dining room and asked to wait for a table instead. We were seated within minutes and looked forward to our 22nd anniversary dinner together. Shortly after we sat down, a man came over the loudspeaker every five minutes to announce that turtle races would be happening at 7:00, a half hour from now. No big deal. We're not interested but good for you if you are.
We started with conch chowder ...
... and a basket of calamari. Plus the loud announcements about the turtle races every five minutes.
Here's our real reason for coming: the ceviche flight. From left to right: Peruvian Classico (yellowtail snapper, red onion, sweet potato, large kernel corn, celery, aji, cilantro with Key Lime Leche de Tigre), Mojito (scallops, pineapple, mango, mint, red onion, aji amarillo, agave), Key West (hogfish, avocado, orange, jalapeno, tomoto, basil), and Nikkei (grouper, yuzu, tamarind, sesame, soya, ginger, lime, Thai basil, chiles).
It arrived just as the turtle races were starting outside and it was mercifully quiet inside for ten minutes. Then the party moved indoors, which involved the announcer playing what amounted to a Deal-or-no-Deal scam with each person whose turtle won with the possibility of winning $400. A rough estimate is that 30 - 40 people had the winning turtle.
The end result was that the people who dropped by to see the turtle races were trapped in the bar area for a full half hour as they were each interviewed and given a key one-by-one, then they each unlocked a drawer one-by-one. A couple of "winners" won Turtle Kraals bucks to spend in the restaurant. Every bit of this was narrated over the restaurant speakers at top volume and since our server was too busy to come back to our table with our check the entire time, we were forced to listen to every minute of it. But hey, the food was great!
When we finally escaped at 7:40, ...
... we walked around the marina for a minute.
Check out that lovely barracuda in the top left. Yes, we've seen lots of those on this trip.

When we returned to our hotel, we took a peek at one of the hotel's two pools. We were really tired of getting wet at this point, so we weren't interested in getting in. Instead, we ate some of the cuatro leches cake we bought in Tavernier, soaked in that delicious air conditioning, and prepared for an early morning departure.

Day 8 >


Florida 2018: [Day 1: Murfreesboro] [Day 2: Merritt Island] [Day 3: Riviera Beach] [Day 4: Key Largo] [Day 5: Key Largo] [Day 6: Key West] [Day 7: Dry Tortugas] [Day 8: Orlando] [Day 9: Columbia] [Day 10: Cincinnati]

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