Once in the tent last night, sans putting on water shoes to walk on the coral to put my feet in the water, we realized how windy it was. Caleb had set up the tent, sleeping pads, and laid out the sheet we brought along because we agreed it would be too warm for our sleeping bags. I climbed in, covered up, and didn’t wake up until 12:30 am, then again at 2:30. The excitement and the light pollution from the base made it hard to sleep.
There is a half-moon and plenty of constellations in the sky when our alarm goes off at 4:00 am. The chickens on the island don’t wake up until 4:30 when we have the car packed, the top down, and the gas tank full. I will drive us to the end of Grinnell Street where we will unload me and the bags in front of the Yankee Freedom III – Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry.
We don’t have to be here until 6:30 with our camping gear and other passengers won’t be here until then. The employees of Sunny Day Catamarans, no longer in operation, thought we were crazy last time for being so early to explore and wait, but today Caleb has to drop the car off at the airport and then walk/run back to the dock in what we hope only takes an hour so he has time to rest when he gets here.
I get to watch the bags and take pictures while I wait. I’m not worried as I know Caleb really wants to go and there is police and taxis that can pick him up – at least this early when we are one of five people wandering the streets. He gave me added confidence that if he does miss today he will join me tomorrow – it would be a different experience to be in paradise seemingly alone and with no umbrella drink – which would just make us dehydrated.
I’m not alone long before employees start showing up after 5:00 am. I had them load all the bags and water except my backpack with our books and batteries inside. I took Caleb’s book out of his just in case we feel like reading, but didn’t grab his camera that he was saving for underwater pictures and footage. Then I got the campers lecture about lunch – one free and $7 otherwise; what gear not to bring and where to put what; and to wait for the ranger once we dock on the island.
Once I dug through the sea bag looking for the gas can I attempted to put the bag back together – that’s that. Then the Captain led me inside the Key West Bight Ferry Terminal so that I could wait more comfortably – he probably meant in the chairs, but I find the floor better. I sit here watching the Phantom of the Elevator when Caleb comes walking in with sweat beading on his forehead.
Once we check in, and are asked to sit in the chairs, we walk two blocks to Harpoon Harry’s, upon employee recommendation, so that Caleb can get a cup of rejuvenating coffee. We have time to take some pictures of the harbor, apply sunscreen liberally, and look at coupons inside before the morning brief. Of course we are the first two in line and on board – our tickets are numbered 1 and 2. Breakfast is continental style, eaten quickly so we can make our way outside where many others have already claimed seats.
The boat pulls out of the harbor before 8:00 am and we stand out on the back deck for thirty minutes as we watch Key West fade into the distance and pass some other islands. I don’t remember much about the passengers on our last trip, but this one has few kids and lots of older, and larger, people. There are also other colorful people and foreign visitors. We saw some other campers unloading and I was told there may be up to eight on board, including us, but that doesn’t cover who may already be on the island.
The ride seemed to go more quickly this time and a bit more rough, but we put our bookmarks in as soon as a lady exclaimed that she could see something in the distance – Garden Key. We made our way to the front where I would get some pictures while eating Cheerios. We had been beat by an over-anxious crowd – as we had been on our first trip. It’s not that we weren’t excited to see it all, but since we had – we shared.
We get our camping brief from the ranger – pay us, don’t hurt the trees, and bring your trash back onboard. We thought someone was staying in spot 8 (where we stayed last time) so I had Caleb claim table 7 while I went looking for another spot, but I couldn’t overt my eyes from everything else they were seeing – birds, beach, sea fragments, and continued to be drawn forward.
I stopped when I thought I saw a knock-kneed bird, that then appeared to be dancing, but was actually still getting used to the one busted leg he was standing on. There happened to be a woman on the beach reading overhear my words about this bird spoken out loud and the conversation started. I met Lisa, her husband, and some of their wine and guacamole. They are from Connecticut, taking a break from the snow, on their third time out here.
They arrived via seaplane, an adventure in itself that only takes thirty minutes, but won’t be camping tonight. My husband approaches to pull me away from my new acquaintances and join him back in our vacation. We change out of pants and into shorts and meet some of the hermit crabs that we will be staying with for the next few days. I want to walk along the island, Bush Key, that is now open, between October and March, while the birds aren’t there nesting.
As we walk along we spot a lot of plastic bottles and trash. We want to pick it all up and perhaps tomorrow we can, but we will need the help of a large garbage bag. We also see a rope for the seaplane, the boats and buoys in the multi-colored water, and remnants of shells and coral reef. At the end, where the sign says area closed, we pass a couple that made their way out here snorkeling. We see Sooty Terns hovering over Long Key, pelicans fishing in the white-caps, and an arrangement of conch shells.
We will pass six people on our way back towards the fort – we are ready to get face deep in the water. Back to the tent to switch from Canon to GoPro, from shorts to wetsuit, and from SPF 30 to 80. We start with the southwest side of the island, closest beach to our campsite, and head toward the South Coaling Dock Ruins. There are lots of people and we actually run into them – visibility is murky today.
I see some fish and as I’m blowing water out of my snorkel and air into my floatie I get moved by the current in-between the pilings and am amazed when I look down – all the fish are hiding from us in here. I make a safe exit before I accidentally touch anything with my flippers. We agree it’s time for some lunch and have a sandwich each before heading to the other beach. A lot looks the same, but so much looks different. This fort is old, in the middle of the ocean, and it shows that evidence in its walls.
We will go in the slightly chilly water with smiles on our faces, but that feeling doesn’t last long as we struggle to breath more air than water as the waves bombard us over our heads. We will make the trip back via moat wall – still lovely with calm waves washing against it, but now with more fallen bricks in the water. It must be nearing 2:30 as the island grows quiet and the crowd diminishes.
Caleb reminds me that we need to get my passport stamped today – even though we will have three more days to do so – we need to stick with tradition. I am more than willing, locate my book, and we make our way to the fort. I go to take our picture in front of the Fort Jefferson sign and had forgotten that my battery had died just moments ago. Back to the tent for another one.
Now I can take our picture and we can make our way inside. I get one of the four stamps. I got two last time, then we make our way into their exhibit room – a model of a turtle’s nest, a please-touch display with broken glass, and a video playing in 3D. We will make our way around the lower level finding moss, stalagmites, the Big Magazine, a hermit crab, coconut husk, and plenty of window views. With so much time on the island we are in no rush to see and do all in the first day, but we are anxious to get back in the water.
Back to the west side where we will go further out and make our way to the rough seas where we turn around. I got to float through a school of fish or what could be more accurately described as a blue-whale-centipede of three or more. I was overwhelmed, and though I did get some pictures, forgot to video the experience. My favorite thing I saw was when I was swimming over a seagrass bed and noticed a conch shell, the size of a toaster, with a conch inside.
The current is strong today and I have to fight to stay still, or relatively so in water, but I stare at this thing with a thin turtle head or mini elephant trunk and snail eyes. We will see lots of fish sized from one-inch angle-haired spaghetti noodle to ones the size of a loaf of French bread and it seems they know the tourist schedule well. We had the same luck three years ago – people leave, fish show in abundance. Time for another break and back at camp we meet Skunk Ape – the talking hermit crab with his name written on his shell.
We grab our books and head to the beach. I will go back for camera and jacket and watch the sunset behind the clouds while reading until it gets dark. Now we can make dinner – or not. We weren’t allowed to fly with the gas can and we weren’t supposed to bring it on the boat, but I couldn’t find it. Caleb found the can only to realize that he didn’t bring the burner (the tiny caveman that would bring heat to our food) so we will not be having a warm meal tonight – or the next two for that matter.
Caleb’s next concern is that now we may have to go back early for lack of food. I remind him that though we will miss a warm meal, if we find ourselves low on edibles, the boat will allow us to buy lunch for $7.00. Dinner will be more sandwiches. One of the camp guests is surprised at the amount of well-shaped rocks near his tent. He was unaware of the large hermit crab population and us of the rats. We are glad to have been forewarned to hang our food as we see and hear them scuffling in the leaves.
With darkness upon us we can brave the warm waters, lay and stare at the stars, or sit in our tent (away from the bugs that the light brings) and read. We will turn quite a few pages before I remember to write. I didn’t expect us up this long and know we will be up early. I love traveling and the anonymous energy that it brings. We both wish now that we had brought infrared lights so that we could snorkel all night and sleep between 10:30am and 2:30 pm while the island is packed with tourists.