(Mark Wilson/ Globe Staff)
Brown noddies like these have their nesting ground on nearby Bush Key; where visitors are not allowed ashore, and where a flurry of sooty terns rises over a nesting colony. More photos

Splendid isolation

On Florida's far flank, an isle for history buffs, campers, and birds

By Tim Wacker
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2007
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DRY TORTUGAS, Fla. -- Diane Magyary and Bob Leong were a day overdue and 2,700 miles from home when the wind picked up.

It looked as if the ferry boats wouldn't be coming again that day and Magyary was supposed to be back at her post at the University of Washington in Seattle. Still, she didn't look worried.

The wind rustling the buttonwood branches over her campsite rushed in from an expanse of turquoise water 50 feet beyond. Majestic Fort Jefferson with its moat and drawbridge loomed behind, and the distant cries from flocks of shore birds were the only sounds.

"You have to be careful. You can get stranded here," Magyary said of her choice of vacation locale. "But I love it most when the boats aren't here. You have the whole island to yourself."

Dry Tortugas National Park may well be the only place left in the Western Hemisphere where you can still get marooned on a deserted tropical island -- if you're lucky.

This collection of overgrown sandbars 70 miles west of Key West is mostly given over to day-trippers. They spend four hours round-trip on a ferry in return for five hours touring the historic fort and snorkeling, swimming, or sunbathing on Garden Key, the only habitable island of the seven Tortugas (tortuga is Spanish for tortoise, and "dry" refers to the absence of drinking water).

But the magic is saved for those who spend the night on this 21-acre former military outpost with a few park staff and even fewer fellow campers. There are only 13 campsites , which are doled out first come, first served for $3 per night.

There is no posted limit to how long campers can stay, according to Linda Friar , National Park Service information officer. With no running water, shops, or other signs of civilization on the island, campers have to carry in everything they need and that can make restaurants and showers pretty enticing after just a few days.

"It is primitive," said Leong. "We're always looking for places that are pretty remote. And this place is about as remote as you can get."

Their isolation is what made the Tortugas so popular with pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. The islands sit in the middle of the Straits of Florida , an ideal jumping off point for buccaneers who preyed on merchant ships out of New Orleans.

Fort Jefferson was built in the mid-19th century, planned as a premier military installation to secure the nation's southern flank. Fifty years later it ended up an outdated amalgam of 18th- and 19th-century European military technology .

The two-story fort is still the country's largest pure masonry structure, a half-mile hexagon of vaulted ceilings composed of some 16 million bricks. Its 450 cannons could reach enemies a mile offshore. Bastions, drawbridge, and moat stood sentry. A hot shot furnace for heating cannonballs to incendiary temperatures sits alongside two powder magazines the size of small movie theaters , designed to keep the tons of explosives dry.

All proved obsolete and were abandoned unfinished with the invention of the rifled cannon barrel, which left the fort's massive exterior vulnerable to pointed shells and ended the age of forts like Jefferson. But military buffs will enjoy looking back on the old ways of war.

"Some of the architects here were French and English, and they liked their moats and drawbridges," said Randy Sublett, who gives tours for passengers of the Yankee Freedom , one of two ferries that service the Tortugas.

"For the US Army Corps of Engineers this fort was a big learning experience," Sublett said. "Still, it's difficult these days to find this kind of quality work. It's just really, really good."

Since the military left in the early 1900s , nature has been reclaiming the islands. Land hermit crabs scurry around at night while terns, gulls, pelicans, and other shore birds scrounge picnic scraps by day. Wiry frigate birds glide 100 feet overhead while the relentless screech of 100,000 sooty terns on nearby Bush Key remind all within earshot who really runs the place. The birds of the Tortugas have been studied by naturalists since John James Audubon visited here in 1832. And even greater natural treasures lie in the surrounding seas.

A 100-yard stretch of coral sand beach abutting the campground on the key's western edge gently slopes into the water, making for excellent swimming and even wading for toddlers in the calmer waters next to the moat.

The waters just offshore are home to all manner of tropical fish and a few small nurse sharks can be seen in the protective nooks of the moat's underwater bulwark. Bolder divers can pick their way around the rusted coal dock ruins where 3-foot-long barracuda and the aptly named Goliath groupers hang out. The largest of the giant groupers bask in the shadows of the boats and docks at the entrance to the fort, an area off limits to divers because of the boat traffic. Still, children and adults can view the groupers, some the size of ponies, from the dock.

The island's greatest natural treasure, the world's third largest barrier reef, is farther offshore and can be reached only by private boat. A rare coral formation known as fused staghorn is found here. These underwater habitats and the ships that have run afoul of them have helped make the Dry Tortugas one of the finest scuba diving locales in North America.

For years environmental groups have sought greater government protections for these natural resources , and in January 46 square miles surrounding the islands were designated a Research Natural Area , the largest such preserve in the continental United States . That means you cannot drop anchor or catch fish in the reserve except in a 1-mile circle around Garden Key.

Tommy Quartararo of Westchester County, N.Y., was taking full advantage of the nonrestrictive area right from shore. He was hauling in an endless supply of 2-pound barracuda when he suddenly hooked something a lot larger. The unknown denizen stripped line from his reel and eventually headed for points west with Quartararo's favorite lure.

Advice for anyone who brings a fishing pole: Bring extra tackle. The fishing is phenomenal, but the nearest bait and tackle shop is 70 miles away.

It's that proximity to civilization that has helped make the Dry Tortugas attractive to another kind of visitor . Increased Coast Guard patrols around Key West following the terrorist attacks of 2001 have made the islands a much safer prospect for Cubans seeking asylum in the United States, according to Friar. They arrive scared and parched from the 90-mile crossing, having spent several days on boats cobbled together from the likes of sheet metal, injection foam, shipping crates, and lawnmower engines.

"That is kind of a difficult situation for us," said Kim Ropp , a Park Service law enforcement officer . "The method they use to enter the country is illegal, but you can't help but feel bad for them, given the condition they come here in."

Quartararo and his girlfriend, Kristen Onderdonk, had a much different arrival. They got the best campsite on the island, with a few hundred miles of the Gulf of Mexico for a front yard. Shortly after setting up camp, they had enjoyed frosty cold beverages and a dinner of fresh mahimahi with black beans. Now they were unperturbed by the gathering wind.

"This place is not for everyone," Onderdonk said. "But it's a lot nicer than I expected it would be. Right now there are just three couples here and it's awesome. I'll be coming back."

Tim Wacker, a freelance writer in Newburyport , can be reached at

If You Go

How to get there

Ferries and seaplanes in Key West provide transportation to and from Dry Tortugas National Park.

Yankee Freedom II
240 Margaret St., next to the Lands End Marina
Campers board at 6:30 a.m., day trippers 7:15; boat departs at 8. Adults $134, child, student, senior, and military discounts available. Breakfast, lunch, entrance fees included.

Sunny Days Fast Cat II
Greene and Elizabeth streets
Boarding no later than 7:30 a.m.; boat leaves at 8. Adults $155, child, student, senior discounts available. Breakfast, lunch, and park entrance fee included.

Seaplanes of Key West
Half day $199, full day $345. Children under age 2 free.

Peak season in Key West is off season in the Dry Tortugas and there often are camping vacancies, but call ahead to reserve. Campsites cost $3 a night, and reservations are first come, first served.

What to bring

Shopping doesn't exist on the Dry Tortugas with the exception of a gift shop the size of a phone booth that's only open when they have extra staff. Bring everything you need including drinking water, a gallon a day per person. Wood fires are not allowed. Bring only self-starter charcoal for the grills provided at each site. Starter fluid and propane or alcohol stoves are not allowed on the boats.

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