Seventy miles off the coast of Key West in the Florida Keys lies an unknown paradise that is rich in history, nature, and architecture. It is called the Dry Tortugas National Park and it is the best kept secret of the Keys.
This national park consists of a cluster of islands that are accessible only by boat or sea plane. I ventured to this breathtakingly beautiful paradise via sailboat on what was the trip of a lifetime. I learned not only history, but also vital environmental information that opened my eyes to the importance of ocean conservation. Although it was not my first visit to this extraordinary haven, it was certainly the most meaningful.
Upon arriving at our destination after a long night at sea, I peeked out of the cabin of our sailboat and gasped at what I saw before me. The beauty astonishes me every time, but now that I was older and more mature, I appreciated the massive fort, the stunning teal waters, and the golden sand of the islands more than ever.
I spent Day 1 in the Dry Tortugas touring Fort Jefferson, a massive fortress that was constructed on Garden Key in the 19th Century. Just exploring the architecture of this spectacular fort is enough to keep anyone busy all day, but there is an abundance of history to learn about as well. On my tour, I learned that it was originally built for military purposes, like to protect vessels shipping goods through the Florida Straits and to act as a safe supply depot where warships could restock supplies during the Civil War.
I also got to see the dungeon, including the famous Dr. Mudd’s cell. I learned the intriguing story of Samuel Mudd, a doctor who was accused of being a conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Standing there in the dungeon while hearing Mudd’s story made me feel like being a part of history myself.
My visit to the Dry Tortugas was much more than just a history lesson; it also schooled me in the importance of environmental conservation. On Day 2, our group took the dinghy to a nearby island called Loggerhead Key for a day of snorkeling. A huge coral reef lies just steps from the beach there. I had snorkeled in this reef before, but this time I knew right away that something was different. Although it was still more beautiful than any other reef I’d ever seen, I couldn’t help but notice that the coral in some areas was not as bright and teeming with life as it had once been. In a few areas, dull shades of gray replaced the vibrant colors that I remembered.
After hours of snorkeling, and countless discoveries such as barracudas, lobsters, and nurse sharks, we wandered onto the shore and ended up meeting the park rangers who live there. These new acquaintances informed us that some of the coral had started to die off as a result of pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. This saddened me but also inspired me to make a difference in ocean conservation in the future.
As a result, I am now an active member of marine biology club at my school where I help with environmental projects such as the International Coastal Cleanup each year. Seeing the effects of pollution firsthand made me want to help the environment, especially the ocean, in whatever ways I can. The Dry Tortugas National Park is a piece of history, a paradise that deserves to be protected so that others can share its awe-inspiring beauty for years to come.
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