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Dry Tortugas Dispatch: Beckoning Birds, a Lighthouse, and No Ghost

In two nights sleeping under the arches at Fort Jefferson, I never saw the ghost. It is legend, or hearsay, but the myth persists. I trawled the halls regularly, even audibly coaxing at times to Dr. Samuel Mudd, the villainous co-conspirator against Lincoln, or any other poor soul who may have lived a life unfulfilled and made a specter amongst the fortified brick. There were plenty of candidates. Many who lived in the spectacular Civil War era coastal fort in Dry Tortugas National Park did so under horrific and devastating conditions. Happily, I was not one of them.

The Dry Tortugas lay 67 miles off the western shore of Key West. It was named such by Ponce de Leon in 1513 for its abundance of turtles and lack of fresh water. Sea turtles, once a delicacy of Caribbean seaman and pirates, currently hold endangered status. Also, the fort now has a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis filtration system for rangers and volunteers. Though visitors don’t have access to running water, they can bring their own beverages and are constantly within range of the overstocked Yankee Freedom, the daily ferry to the park.

Perhaps a modern day correlation for “Dry” is the cell phone and Internet connection, which is non-existent to visitors, and spotty at best to the support staff. It is – though technically part of Monroe County – the most remote national park in the United States. And tuning out the white noise of email and text is a welcome inconvenience. Visiting paradise does not mesh well with digital distractions.

I arrived by seaplane, on the dead-leg flight, which returns only to pick up homeward visitors to the park and is available only to guests of park employees. I was the lone passenger, and the pilot had me sit up front in the co-pilot’s seat while he played a classic rock playlist through the cracked screen of his cell phone. There was a bag of Cheetos tiding him over for the ride, and he pointed out landmarks over the plane’s thunderous drone. Seaplanes are astonishingly loud and overwhelming, but with the right headset and a view of some of the most beautiful landscape in South Florida, Led Zeppelin takes control.

Heading straight into the western setting sun, my eyes tried to adjust, but failed. Looking out the side windows was the best option. As the plane approached the park I could see the smaller islands in the system: Hospital Key, Middle Key, and East Key. They are barren desert islands in the most traditional sense, with nothing on them but sand and emptiness. Though they may seem perfect for death by marooning, and completely inhospitable for human life, these islands remain important sea turtle nesting grounds.

From the plane, Fort Jefferson arises red out of the clear blue ocean. The brick is a stark contrasting color. It is almost as if the sun burns your eyes upon arrival and the fiery color of the fort cauterizes them. The fort is an imposing presence yet calming. As a military outpost Fort Jefferson never saw any actual action, nor was it ever actually finished construction wise.  It seems to be a place defined by contrast.

The first thing I noticed after hopping on to the beach was the call of the Sooty Tern. Impressively, the Sooty Tern is a seabird that can go without touching land for upwards of 10 years at a time. It can glide or float for a decade without resting on a beach. One of the few places the terns are known to stop to nest is Bush Key in the Dry Tortugas, which has grown together and now shares a beach with Garden Key where the fort was built over the last year.

The layered cacophony of thousands of Sooty Terns squawking is beautiful and constant. Day and night, within earshot, these birds are the islands’ theme music. At times you wish you could turn the sound up. Never down.

It was late afternoon when I arrived. My guide was Melissa Memory, Chief of Cultural Resources for the Everglades and Dry Tortugas. She had been there for eight days as the on-site manager. She was going home in three. Most of the support staff’s stays are similar to this. Though some parks employees are stationed there for many years, they always have the opportunity of shore leave on the mainland after a week or so.

Nighttime brings whatever food and drink was carried to the island. There are no shops or watering holes, nothing but the supplies you brought. If you do choose to stay in the Dry Tortugas you can anchor in your own boat in the cove a mile from the fort, or camp out at one of the ten coveted primitive sites outside the walls of the fort and available through the park’s website.  

Memory cooked me a tasty meal in her apartment embedded in one of the arches on the second level of the fort. We chatted about anything and everything over victuals. She seemed happy for the company and eager to talk about the intricacies of the park. The remoteness doesn’t allow for many guests, and on this first night she had planned to feed me and show me a close-up of the Garden Key lighthouse.

We walked the fort and climbed up the stairs of the lighthouse, allowing one of the best views of the whole fort and surround environs. Loggerhead Key lies in the distance, with its own massive 157-foot lighthouse beacon rising from seemingly nowhere, spinning its call for miles around. Lighthouses have become unnecessary due to GPS, and remain mostly just nostalgic visages of the past. They are shutting down across the board, Memory explains, because budget cuts discriminate harshly against functionally useless operations.

The view from Garden Key Lighthouse was not useless. The stars at night were like a spilled vanilla milkshake on construction paper, swashing over this tiny sliver of the ocean, illuminated and alive. The remoteness and lack of man-made light allows the sky to breathe. What little light you experience is riveting, reflecting off the cool sparkling surface of the Gulf.

This place is real but feels nothing like it. Welcome to the Dry Tortugas. 

This is the first dispatch in a two-part exploration of Dry Tortugas National Park. Click here for part two.

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.