Sukanya Ramanujam takes an unusual ferry ride off the coast of the southern-most tip of the U.S.
There are very few things that can motivate someone to get out of bed at 5:30 am on a cold and windy winter day, even if this particular winter is a mild Florida one. However, the prospect of a day trip to one of the most remote national parks in the United States, which can be reached only by boat or seaplane, is something to enthuse even the most jaded traveller. The streets of Key West seem deserted, as my sister and I make our way to the ferry terminal to head out to the Dry Tortugas, a chain of seven uninhabited islands over 100 km offshore. The first Europeans to discover the islands were the Spanish when explorer Juan Ponce de León landed here in 1513 .
At the ferry terminal, we find to our disappointment that instead of a cheery welcome we are being greeted by the offer of a refund. The captain and crew are explaining that the two-hour ride is likely to be very rough because of the strong winds and we are entitled to a full refund if we choose not to sail.
Going back is really not an option because first, we don’t have another day to come back and second, we were not going to chicken out just because of rough winds. We have been on boats and turbulent flights before, so what could be new? We assume the crew is being over-cautious and clamber aboard, refusing offers of refunds and motion sickness pills.
We are soon to find out how just seriously we have underestimated the warnings. The ride aboard the catamaran Yankee Freedom II begins peacefully and we admire the receding coast of the Key West islands over breakfast (a serious mistake, as 95 per cent of the passengers will find out in about 20 minutes, the remaining 5 per cent being the crew). Just as some of us begin to get complacent, the catamaran enters the deep water channel connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and the waves, which until now had just been mere blimps, suddenly become monstrous. The catamaran does not roll; it pitches up and down violently and most of us are desperately clutching the tables in front of us. The waves seem to be throwing the entire boat up in the air and then catching it, over and over again.
The turbulence seems unending, and by the time we reach the shallower waters around the Tortugas, most of us have lost count of the number of times we held out our hands for sickness bags. I am so tired that I miss the magnificent facade of Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the US, which creeps up on Garden Key, the island where we dock.
Tortugas is Spanish for turtles and the islands abound in them. The Dry in the name derives from the fact that none of the islands have fresh water. As we begin our tour, we don’t spot any turtles but are warned to keep a sharp eye out for the resident alligator in the vast moat that encompasses Fort Jefferson on six sides.
The fort’s history is fascinating. Construction started in 1846, as the islands were seen as strategic in protecting American interests in the Gulf of Mexico but the plans soon ran into trouble. The task of supplying material and supplies for workers on the island must have been well near impossible. I wonder how gruelling the voyage would have been in days when there weren't any stabilised catamarans. Yet the fort rose, despite all odds, to massive proportions. Its most prominent feature is the trompe l'oeil gun ports on the facade to deceive enemy ships.
Beaches and birds
Life on the island was far from pleasant. Drinking water was a problem. The moat’s faulty design meant that water was contaminated with sewage, making disease rampant. The seriously ill were moved to Hospital Island, one of the other islands in the Tortugas. Seclusion also took its toll on the morale of soldiers and families. In fact, the lives of the park rangers today, posted all year on the island with no Net or mobile phone connectivity, seems as bleak.
The beaches are one of the best reasons to visit the Tortugas. The water is warm enough all year around and perfect for swimming and snorkelling. On a clear day, you get spectacular views of the coral reefs and fish. Unfortunately for us, visibility is at an all-time low because of the heavy winds and we spend the afternoon splashing around the beaches.
The walk on the moat around the fort truly takes our breath away — at some points the moat wall only rises marginally from the water and it feels almost like we are standing on a narrow strip of land between two oceans.
The Tortugas are a bio-diversity hot spot. Apart from marine life, the place teems with birds. Most islands are closed to visitors since they are nesting grounds, but our island yields gulls, terns and plovers.
It’s almost time to leave, and we look longingly at some of the tourists smart enough to bring supplies to camp overnight. Apart from the spectacular sunset, the night sky would have been a treat. Armed with sickness pills, we climb aboard the ferry again but our two-hour journey back is perversely uneventful.