Before I arrived, I didn't even know this place existed about 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Key West. So glad my friend Michelle invited me along on this mini-adventure.
After a couple hours on the most expensive ferry ever, ($190 roundtrip) we arrived at Fort Jefferson which also happens to be a National Park situated smack dab in the middle of nowhere on a group of islands called the Dry Tortugas. Michelle and I immediately retrieved our gear from the dock and set up our tent and umbrella as the shadiest camping spots were already taken and the sun was high and hot. We were provided a picnic table and a pole upon which to hang a trash bag (out of the rats' reach) but everything else we had to bring ourselves. Immediately upon making our first meal of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, we were invaded by a tiny arm of hungry, hungry hermit crabs. (Although technically I guess it's we that are invading their space.)
We stripped down to our bikinis and slathered on the sunscreen before taking our plunge into the ocean. It started raining and it was the most incredible feeling to be floating in the salty sea below while simultaneously experiencing a fresh shower from above. After the ferry left, along with the hoards of tourists, we didn't hear much except the white noise of nesting birds on the adjacent island and the rustling of the wind in our tents and trees.
The summertime mini-monsoon came right on schedule around 4 PM that afternoon and I stayed dry and happy in our tent while Michelle was off wandering and got thoroughly soaked. Luckily, it doesn't take long for anything to dry under the Florida sun. We soon decided to start exploring the unfinished pile of bricks also known as Fort Jefferson. The juxtaposition of the dilapidated old structure against the screensaver-worthy clear blue water and white sand beach is pretty jarring. As it was nearing dinner time, we decided to head back to base. I did some sunset yoga in the sand (very exfoliating but I can't say I recommend it) while Michelle chatted up our neighbors Judy & Jeff who happened to catch some Red Snapper earlier that afternoon. She gladly accepted their fishy dinner while I stuck to the vegetarian dinner that I had prepared and brought. We wanted to take the rain fly off that night so we could sleep in the light of the stars, but it continued to sprinkle well into the night. Michelle had a small air mattress, a matching pink sheet set and pillow. By contrast, all I brought was my yoga mat, blue travel neck pillow and a light tropi-colored sarong that functioned as a blanket. Don't need much since it's Florida and still about 80º even at night.
I rose with the sun after a lucid and rather stiff night's sleep. Michelle is not a morning person so I left the tent with my yoga mat curled up under my arm to do a sunrise practice on the dock. There weren't many people around so I was largely uninterrupted, except for one Captain Obvious who asked "Yoga?" "Yep" I replied. Like trying to balance in sand, balancing in a rather strong sea breeze is also an added challenge. But, I was still able to complete a few harder poses like crow and headstand. Chavasanah at the end was particularly enjoyable as I listened to the waves lapping against the shore. I returned to camp to find Michelle eating breakfast s'mores with our other neighbors to the east. I opted for the pumpkin breakfast bars I baked earlier in the week and brought, as well as an apple and a banana.
After satiating ourselves, we grabbed our snorkel gear and headed for the coal shoals - some forgotten wooden structures just off the shore that looked decrepit and unsuitable for any use above the surface (except as perches for seabirds) but were teeming with coral and fish below. We both had issues with leaky masks so I traded in my ill-fitting and bulky snorkel for my trusty triathlon swim goggles and Michelle smeared some toothpaste in her mask to keep it from fogging up. Round two was smoother and much more successful. We got out of the water just as the daily ferry was arriving and wolfed down a lunch of PB&J, popcorn, dried mango and water. We met our newest neighbors - a father-son duo named Mark and Dylan - as they were setting up for their first day of camp. I took a digestive nap in the shade of our umbrella while Michelle soaked up some sun on the beach.
Later three of us went on a quest to find the elusive coral head, rumored to be just off the west side of the island. We swam out way to far past an anchored catamaran and into a current too swift for our liking, so we started to swim back to shore when we serendipitously stumbled upon the coral treasure we had set out for. It was definitely worth the trip. Our second adventure of the day involved taking kayaks out from the south side of the island seeking a fabled shipwreck with Jeff & Judy with directions from a park ranger named Tree. I saw a few dark spots scattered across the ocean floor but couldn't tell exactly what it was from the surface so I submerged my gopro a few times and will review the footage later. I'm pretty sure our effort was in vain. (And it was.)
That night, we all enjoyed dinner in the best camping spot on the island, which I called The Shire, as it was tucked underneath a small grove of trees. Everyone enjoyed various meals but we all indulged in s'mores for dessert, which happen pair very well with pinot grigio, by the way. By the time we were finished, the sky was completely illuminated with stars so we took a stroll around the moat to admire them. We discovered some bioluminescent creatures floating and flashing throughout the moat like a tiny, buoyant paparazzi. The sky was clear so the view was incredible. It's a little sad that this is what the sky is supposed to look like at night but we so often sacrifice it in the name of modern convenience. After a 360º view of the fort and the night sky, we dusted off our sandy feet and crawled into our tents to spend the night. I slept much better despite the wind trying it's hardest to blow us and our tent off the island.
Again I woke up at dawn and again I did some yoga on the dock. I have no concept of time with no watch, phone or phone signal so I'd guess I did close to an hour and a half. I brought one of the big, black offroading wheelbarrows with me back to the campsite in preparation for breaking everything down and taking it to the dock where it would be loaded back onto the ferry later that morning. It was a bit sad to break down the tent, but we planned to still make the most of every minute of that day. And every minute also happened to bring us closer to a proper shower back on the mainland so that was our light at the end of the tunnel. Michelle and I explored the top tier of the fort by ourselves before taking a guided tour. We learned more about the brief and completely pointless history of the structure.
It really was a waste of effort and energy as the only thing that ever attacked the place was a bout of yellow fever (transmitted via mosquitos.) And it's called the dry tortugas because there is no natural source of fresh water on the island, so I don't know who thought it was a good idea to build a fort there and stock it with thousands of soldiers and Civil War prisoners. So many fails, except of course for modern capitalism/tourism.
After the tour, Michelle and I enjoyed a DIY sandwich buffet, pasta salad, chips, fruit and overly processed chocolate chip cookies on board the boat. She was anxious to get back in the water one more time but I was done being cold and soggy so I scoped out some seats for us and on board the boat for the last hour or so before the scheduled departure time. We both passed out, using our backpacks as pillows during the return voyage. When I woke up, I noticed everyone around me fixated on their smartphones since we were close enough to Key West to pick up a cell signal.
We packed a lot into three days on a semi-deserted island and I would highly recommend the experience for novice campers. Island life suited me well and I liked not having to worry about status updates, phone calls, appointments or even what time it was. I even set a personal record for going 24 hours without wearing pants in public. LoL