a frenchman among the turtles: las tortugas in the florida keys


By guest blogger Fabien Reynaud.

During a road trip in Florida a few summers back, my partner and I decided to stay few days in Key West. Crossing the keys on the endless bridges, hopping from one island to the next was a fantastic and quite unique experience for a Frenchman living in London. With the vast blue ocean around me, I felt small and insignificant, yet calm and relaxed. The warm welcome of the Conch Republic led us to what is generally thought of as the last of the keys.

However, I had previously done research about the southernmost point in the USA and found out that the chain of the Florida Keys actually doesn’t end in Key West. In fact the Keys continue for another seventy miles west.

The end point of the Keys is the beautiful island called Las Tortugas “The Turtles” named by the first European to see the islands, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, who visited there in the early 16th century. As the story goes, Ponce de León caught almost two hundred sea turtles there and subsequently referred to the islands as the “Tortugas.” They are sometimes called the “Dry Tortugas” because there is no fresh water on the island. The surrounding area is part of the Dry Tortugas National Park, administered by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The day I was there I was the sole French man there – the only proud representative of the vast Francophone world to be found on this island. [Of course there were only five others on the island at the time: three park rangers, one American and one Brit!]

The park is accessible only by seaplane or boat. We opted for a seaplane ride for a first time experience of taking off and landing on the sea. It was the most expensive option [$265 per person] for a half day excursion, but it was the fastest way to get there [40 minutes versus four hours by ferry]. It gave us about 2 ½ hours on the island which was more than enough time to explore. Walking into the Fort Jefferson complex and feeling the past, breathing the sea breeze, a taste of snorkeling [complimentary snorkeling equipment and soft drinks from the seaplane company], and the experience was complete.

We chose the morning flight as we thought we might be able to see more of the wildlife there at that time of the day. Las Tortugas is famous for abundant sea life, colorful coral reefs and legends of shipwrecks and sunken treasures. Early flights also help travel-weary Frenchmen to avoid the tourist crowds! The park has almost 80,000 visitors each year. Taking the early flight was a great idea as we virtually had the place to ourselves. We walked around freely [after giving an extra $5 for the park entry fee] around the building taking in the sights and learning the history of this enormous man-made complex.

The park’s centerpiece is Fort Jefferson, a massive coastal fortress. It is said to be the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, as it is composed of over 16 million bricks. I didn’t really have time to count them all but I read it somewhere there and I thought yeah, it must be about the right number, give or take a few.

Like many other forts from the early 19th century, Fort Jefferson was built after the war of 1812 as part of a US plan for a chain of coastal defense forts stretching from Maine to Texas. In the mid 1820’s and about five years after Spain sold Florida to the United States for $500 million [in today’s dollars it would cost tens of billions of dollars] the U.S. Navy, looking for a site for a naval station that would help suppress piracy in the Caribbean, decided Las Tortugas would be the place. Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846 and continued for thirty years, but was never quite finished.

After having been given some great facts of history by the park rangers, we decided to head towards “our” private beach and tried our hand at snorkeling. The snorkeling experience was short and sweet; of course my desire to keep it short may have been influenced by the fact that while flying in we saw several sharks from the air.

We were told that the park is staffed by a team of about a dozen park rangers. They live on the island year round in quarters integrated into the fort structure. While the scenery is beautiful, it is quite an isolated way to spend your time as a ranger and consequently many do not stay more than a couple of years. Their job includes law enforcement, maintenance and basic support and protection, above and below the water, of the 100 square mile park.

The trip to the Tortugas was a fantastic and unforgettable experience.

For more information, visit the web page of the Dry Tortugas National Park.

Fabien is a French expat currently living in the United Kingdom.