Unless you have a private boat or seaplane, the only way to get to Dry Tortugas is on a ferry called the Yankee Freedom — yes, that is it’s real name and yes, an American flag billows off the rear. My ride on the Yankee was particularly rough. Rob, the crew captain, who interacted with his passengers with equal parts dad and drinking buddy, warned us from the terminal building that the seas were high. The waves along the channel into the park averaged five to seven feet high.
“Dramamine is your best friend today,” he told the crowd. He sold it on the cheap, one dollar per dose. I was no stranger to seasickness, once getting sick over a railing as I guided my own group of passengers through the channel between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. I popped two chalky pills and spent the next three hours in an open-mouth daze while around me the majority of the passengers who “never got sick” turned white and reached desperately for brown bags. Across from me, my two seat mates, a couple from Dallas, watched the water for signs of land.
“I wonder if they ever see Cubans crossing over,” the man said, lifting his sunglasses to check the waves. It was a hideous picture; the waves could crush any smaller crafts. But we were directly in the channel between Cuba and Miami. Dry Totugas is a midpoint.
His girlfriend pulled her blonde hair out of her Lily Pulitzer jacket as she zipped it up to her chin. “They’d be crazy not to come,” she said. “We have everything.”
The idea that American society “has everything,” or that its bursting at the seams with cultural and commercial exceptionalism, is precisely what the second largest island in Dry Tortugas National Park, Garden Key, was meant to protect. Fort Jefferson, the colossal octagon of brick and sand, was erected to tower over the shallow turquoise waters of the Biscay Reef system. On a windless day, the water surrounding it is as clear as a swimming pool.
The day I walked across the moat and through the high arch into Fort Jefferson was windy but sunny. I had my jacket zipped up to my chin but my legs were bare with shorts. Soon small stickers from the large infield of the fort hitched to the bottom of my sandals and my ankles. I leaned into a large oak tree and a cannon storage unit to pull them out.
The unit dates Fort Jefferson to the 19th century, and specifically, the War of 1812. The battle between America and Britain was, if not a loss, then a draw for the United States. Washington, D.C. burned to the ground. The U.S.’s coastal navy was decimated by Britain’s deep water ships. The U.S., humiliated, created a system of fortification from Maine all the way down to Texas. Their most impressive fort was to be built at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico; Dry Tortugas, a set of seven islands, was the perfect spot.
The U.S. spent 30 years building a fort so foreboding that no one would attack it. It’s the largest all-masonry fort in the U.S. with over 16 million bricks stacked into 2,000 archways, supporting 175 cannons, and 110 cisterns to store fresh water. It had a wide, navy blue harbor light to shine ships into port. In its sixteen acres of land, it had enough supplies to support a small army for a year long siege. In the days of its creation, slaves, nearly 20 percent of the workforce, mined local coral around Bush Key to make concrete.
Before Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas was a graveyard of treasure. For centuries, after Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the islands and ate their turtles, ships used the channel to cross from the Caribbean into the Gulf of Mexico. And for centuries, these ships crashed into the shallow waters of the keys, drowning literal chests of treasure like constellations on a map. The keys are shape shifters. They grow and they shrink from hurricanes, wave breaks, and rising sea levels.
Fort Jefferson was never finished. Engineers became worried that the island couldn’t support the plans for additional weight of both cannon and brick. It was abandoned in 1874 and used as a station for ships to refuel on coal instead. In 1935, President Roosevelt designated Dry Tortugas as a national monument. Over half a century later, in 1992, it became a national park.
But just as the American government reneged on its plans for Fort Jefferson, its also reneging on its commitment to national parklands: its failing to protect the fragile islands that their fortifications were built upon.
About 80,000 sooty terns nest on Bush Key, the only colony of the birds in North America. Bush Key is only two feet above sea level. The highest elevation within Dry Tortugas, is Loggerhead Key, on which the single lighthouse in the Keys stands. Loggerhead Key is only ten feet above sea level.
The keys of Dry Tortugas could be underwater, along with Everglades National Park and much of the southern peninsula of Florida, within eighty years. Current projections show that in the next two to three centuries, sea level will rise twelve feet, possibly submerging the entire state. Global warming is the main culprit, increasing water levels through melting snow and ice and expanding the mass of oceanic water that already exists. Warm water takes up more space than cold water, and the oceans are warming.
Before I left Garden Key, I snorkeled in the shallow waters with my blonde Lily Pulitzer boat mate. We spun around a bit, sticking our masks in the water without venturing further out than the buoys that marked the swimming area. She left the ocean early, disappointed at the murky water.
“There’s a sign that says sharks and gators,” she said. “Who knows what’s below my feet.”
There are obvious answers: fish, kelp, coral, sand, if we’re lucky, a sea turtle. In the past, the world’s loneliest crocodile, Cleatus, could have swum near us. He once lived around Garden Key. For fourteen years Cleatus swam between Fort Jefferson and the sooty terns at Bush Key. He never harassed any worker or tourist, but he was removed to the Everglades after he was observed swimming near the moat and being approached by tourists.
Instead of calling Cleatus a nuisance, who was removed without a tracker to a new region presumably controlled by aggressive male crocs, wildlife biologists have since called the humans a nuisance. Crocodiles are notorious for returning to their home grounds, even if hundreds of miles away. Cleatus could swim back.
The ground below my goggles was a chalky blue and the strong waves pushed me back against the sand if I stayed still too long. The only wildlife I saw were grey snapper in the moat that runs between sea wall and fort. But I could still hear the churn of ocean in the high winds. Listen, it said, pay attention.