August 04, 2017

Off The Map: Snorkeling In The Dry Tortugas

Words + Photos : Jonathan Longnecker

For the past nine months, Jonathan and Ashley Longnecker have been living in an RV, traveling across the United States with their four children: Adali, 10, Jett, 8, Jax, 6, and Ada, 4. After deciding they wanted their kids to learn from the world around them, the Longnecker family set out to make memories and explore magical places together.

The family has travelled up and down the East Coast, from Acadia National Park in Maine, to the Florida Keys. For New Year’s, they took a trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park, which they all agree has been their favorite stop so far. Jonathan shared a bit about why the Dry Tortugas was fun not just for him and Ashley, but for all four kids as well!

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I had never heard of the Dry Tortugas until Ashley showed it to me. It’s an island 70-miles from Key West that houses the largest masonry building in the western hemisphere. Fort Jefferson is mind-boggling in it’s size, scale and ambition. How the heck did they build that thing in the middle of nowhere? And what’s up with name? Turns out there’s an abundance of Sea Turtles in the area (turtle is "tortuga" in Spanish), and the island has no fresh water source. So its name was really just a way to tell Pirates and other ships that, while there were lots of turtles for food, but there was no water.

Technically, the whole area is a national park, and most of the park is underwater! The island itself (and adjoining Bush Key and Long Key) is where you’ll spend your time though.

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So here’s the deal – you can book a day trip on a huge ferry (or a plane) and spend about 4 hours swimming, snorkeling and exploring the island before you have to head back. OR you can come over on the ferry and dry camp for up to 14 days for just a few dollars more. We opted for a two night stay, and it was the most memorable experience of our travels so far.

When the boat was there, it was pretty touristy. I think it carries about 150 people. But when they left at 2:45, the island became yours. There’s only 10-15 campsites on the island so it was nearly deserted. No lights, noises, cars. Just a hulking mass of bricks framed by the stars.

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There’s a massive, walkable moat around the whole fort. Word has it Carlos the Crocodile lives there, washed in from a hurricane. We never saw him though. I set off the first night by myself and walked around the perimeter. The top of the moat is so close to the water I felt like I was walking on a bridge in the middle of the ocean. With no light pollution, the stars were out of this world – and the bioluminescent organisms in the water flashed and sparkled. It really felt like I was on a deserted island. The next night, we made friends with a few other families and all 9 of us took flashlights on our walk, spotting all sorts of fish, lobsters and crabs.

Hermit crabs are in abundance as well as the turtles. At night, you have to watch where you step because they are everywhere! The kids had a blast following them around and building houses for them. Just don’t get freaked out when you hear them crawling near your tent at night!

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In the morning, before the boat came back, we were free to swim in the crystal blue waters without interruption. The snorkeling was some of the best in the world. We found out after we left that the areas right near the island aren’t even the best ones – those are a couple of miles out in the ocean. But the coral reefs we saw were more than amazing and seriously impressed us. Thousands of fish, unique coral and plants – it was like an underwater city. I won’t ever forget swimming past sea grass patch after sea grass patch, thinking, “Is this it?” – and then the whole reef just came out of nowhere and took my breath away.

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Finally, I should mention Fort Jefferson again. If you look at a map of the island, it makes up nearly 80% of it. We took a guided tour with one of the park rangers, and gained a lot of respect and appreciation for those that lived here over the years. They literally worked themselves to death building this massive structure in the middle of nowhere and it doesn’t have an obvious purpose. The masonry work is beautiful and complex–the defense features are well thought out, and even though they didn’t work, the ideas for collecting fresh water and using the tides as a natural toilet flush we smart and ambitious.

If you’re down in the Florida Keys, go visit the Dry Tortugas – I guarantee it’s a place you will never forget.

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