The sea turtle swam toward us, paused and then breast-stroked away, its lumbering body graceful and weightless the dense seawater. It was one of those unexpected, serendipitous moments that can never be penciled into a vacation itinerary, a moment you can only hope all your planning will lead to.
It was all the more wondrous when we realized we were only about 30 yards offshore, snorkeling in the aquamarine waters of the Dry Tortugas. Perhaps we should not have been surprised: )) These scrabbly coral islands, about 70 miles west of Key West, were named with the Spanish word for "turtles" because explorer Juan Ponce de Leon found so many of the gentle creatures when he first reached the islands in 1513. (The "dry" was added later as an advisory to navigators that the Tortugas offer no fresh drinking water. They still don't.)
Perhaps more amazing than our turtle encounter was the realization that we were frolicking at the foot of Fort Jefferson, a formidable brick garrison first built to control the Florida Straits and then to house Union prisoners during the Civil War. What once could only be described as a hell-hole, a place of forced servitude for desperate men, is now a national park where tourists bring picnic lunches and snorkel gear -- and pay for the privilege.
It's quite a privilege. The waters here are crystal-clear and the sand immaculate, thanks to strict monitoring by the National Park Service, which has managed the Tortugas since 1908 and kept them almost exactly in their original, natural state. The fort remains as the only large man-made structure on the islands.
You can get there by boat or seaplane, and if you take your own boat you'll be allowed to dock it for only two hours at a time. That's how the Park Service keeps even the dockside waters as clean as the open sea.
We got there on the Yankee Freedom, a 100-foot, 98-passenger Super Lydia Cruiser that ferries tourists from Key West four days a week. Some of them choose to camp overnight, which allows a more leisurely exploration of the fort and the splendid reef that has grown up around it.
The United States got the Tortugas from Spain in 1819, a package deal with Florida. In 1846, the government began building Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, a project that would consume more than 16 million bricks but was never actually finished. It became a Union outpost when the Civil War began in 1861, and was used as a prison for deserters.
Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Confederate sympathizer who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Although Mudd protested that he had not known Booth had just killed the president, he was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and sentenced to life in prison. Mudd served only four years at Fort Jefferson, however; he was pardoned after heroically working to stem a yellow fever epidemic at the fort.
Mudd's cell is a featured attraction of the tour led by park rangers. Mudd's cell is low-ceilinged and musty, and must have been even more so when Mudd occupied it: The tiny windows on either side were boarded up when Mudd was there, sharing it with three other prisoners.
Though Mudd is the main attraction, occasionally you'll find other tidbits. A Union soldier's diary, excerpted and posted on a wall, notes the suicide of a comrade.
It is a reminder of how routine death and hardship were in those times.
"He was crazy," the soldier observes, then moves on smoothly. "Weather today pleasant."
If you go...
What: Cruise to Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas: Four-hour cruise departs 8 a.m., returns to Key West about 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Getting there: Take U.S. 1 to the Historic Seaport District of Key West; turn right on Palm Avenue and follow to Margaret Street; turn right. Free parking is available.
Fares: Round-trip $79 adults; $69 for members of military, seniors 62 and older and students; $49 children 16 and younger.
Overnight campers pay $94, all ages. Fare includes full breakfast; cash bar opens on return trip. Cash accepted at departure, but reservations may be made only with a credit card, there's no office at which to pay cash in advance. Reservations are held until 30 minutes before departure. (800) 634-0939. The island has no food, drink or trash facilities; bring your own refreshments and take your trash home.
Pub Date: 9/29/96