Everglades USA Exped – Day 15
The Dry Tortugas
After a long night sailing we arrived to the Dry Tortugas. The first sight of Harbor Lighthouse and majestic Fort Jefferson — the massive brick structure that seemed to take up an entire island — was enough to have everyone on deck, passing the binoculars around. After throwing out the anchor and having breakfast together, Mike informed us that it was up to the YEPs to organize the day on this island chain located less than 100 miles from Cuba. It was up to us to decide what we were going to do, and when we were going to do it. Basically PANGAEA was in the hands of the YEPs for the day… What a responsibility!
We discussed the options and decided that it would be best to take the dinghy to land and get some more information about our surroundings from Dry Tortugas National Park office.
So far, what we knew was what we could see: the Tortugas are a cluster of seven small islands composed of coral reefs and sand. The surrounding shoals and water make up Dry Tortuga National Park. Fort Jefferson, whose massive cannons can be seen on the outer wall from miles away, takes up the greater part of a picturesque remote island.
We arrived to shore with feelings of awe and apprehension. It felt as though somebody was about to march out of the fort, read us our rights and arrest us for trespassing. Instead we found the staff to be friendly and informative.
Our unofficial tour guide was called Ray and he was was truly an interesting man. Ray is a retired schoolteacher and present-day volunteer who works at Fort Jefferson for one month each year. Ray informed us that the building of the fort commenced in the 1800’s and after the masons laid 16 Million bricks, the largest brick structure in the Northern Hemisphere was technically never even completed! In fact, the whole entire fort, though once active, never fired one hot shot and was never fired upon. This is due to the fort being decommissioned as a result of civil war technologies which made it, quite suddenly, very outdated.
Ray helped us plan our day and showed us on a local area map where the best places to scuba and snorkel were. I was so impressed by the fort and the enthusiasm of our new friend, that I decided to give him my Mike Horn Wenger Swiss army knife as a token of our appreciation. His gratitude and plans of using it for maintenance at the Fort as well as on future camping trips assured me that I had made the right decision.
We made full use of the afternoon by squeezing in two Scuba dives, the second of which was the wreck of an old sailing ship — the Windjammer — that had ran into the reef during high winds in 1907. The 1,862-ton vessel’s port anchor had been lost in an attempt to slow the ship down and the navigational error caused the wreck. It was amazing to see the anchor lying such a distance away from the ship on the ocean floor. As I was diving it occurred to me how terrifying it must have been to be on board the ship while it was going down, and I wondered at what I would have done if I was put in that situation. It turns out, the entire [Norwegian] crew of the Windjammer survived but the ship was a total loss — although future Scuba divers’ gain! There was a huge amount of fish and coral life to be seen, including a huge barracuda and a giant lobster hiding under what remained of the bow of the ship.
The day came to an end with a rousing celebration of Fred (the Swiss wilderness guide) and Dima (Mike's official photographer) birthday dance party before turning Pangaea back east at 11 PM for an overnight cruise.
With only seven days of the expedition left, we are zooming across the ocean at night so as to make full use of the day light. Tomorrow is sure to be yet another eventful day of diving and excitement. As this is my last blog of the expedition, it is sad to think that this epic experience is drawing to an end. I am extremely grateful to have a part in it, and what I have learned will stay with me for the rest if my life.