15 Cuban Refugees and 1 Crocodile

Published: June 22nd 2014
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Today was the highlight of our whole trip - the one thing I scheduled to do. Visit Dry Tortugas National Park. It is located 70 miles out to sea and is probably the most remote national park in the NP System. It is only accessible by charter boat, sea plane, or the national park ferry. We opted for the ferry. It is the most popular option and the least expensive, but all options are very expensive.

We had to be at the boat ramp by 7am so it was an early wake up time. We also had to check out of the hotel, so we packed everything up, loaded the car and headed to the marina. We checked in, retrieved our passes and listened to the instructions from the crew. They also had Dramamine for sale, so Donald helped out the local economy and bought a pack. There were about 120 passengers on board, so pretty busy. They immediately got breakfast available and the long line of hungry early risers quickly knew where to go. The captain sounded the horn and we were on our way.

The weather was clear and water extremely calm. It could not have been better. The route out to the Dry Tortugas took about 2 1/2 hours and was a pleasant ride. I went out on the stern of the boat for a closer view of the water. Our boat moved pretty fast (about 30 mph) so any marine life was passing by quickly. I was able to see a few sea turtles, a few large fish and many flying fish. Shelby only saw words for she read the whole time, Stephen saw animated characters because he watched videos the whole time, and Donald saw practically nothing for he slept most of the time. Guess his Dramamine kicked in. Much of the route was over very shallow water and with the water so clear, you could see straight to the bottom - 20 to 30 feet. It was kind of cool to see all that ocean life beneath you. We passed by the Marquesa Islands and then it was just open ocean. The kinda of water that makes you feel very small.

Being out in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight can make you a little nervous. But before too long the islands that make up the Dry Tortugas came into sight. There are several islands in the park, but only one of them allows visitors - our destination of the day. The island we were touring is the home of Fort Jefferson. It is a huge fort built in the 1800s during wartime. It is nearly as big as the island itself for it was built in a circular shape with a moat surrounding it. The moat is 6/10 of a mile and proved to be a good barrier around the fort. The fort was never completely finished, but used for many years by the military - both as a fort to help protect the US and as a jail for several years. The most famous prisoner held there was Dr. Mudd (doctor who helped John Wilkes Booth).

We pulled into dock around 10:30. We deboarded and headed into the fort. We toured many rooms, on multiple levels including the roof top. The view from the roof was awesome and gave you a great perspective on how alone out there one is. I can only imagine how miserable the individuals who were required to stay there must have been. It is extremely hot, hardly any trees much less shade, no fresh water, rarely rains and a 70 mile swim to the nearest land area. Guess that is why it made a good prison, until the expense and hardships of supplying the area with rations set in. After touring we went into the visitor center and one of the rangers asked if we saw the group of Cubans come ashore. We had not for we had been in the fort. He stated that there were about 20 of them and we should take a look - that it is sometimes very interesting in the type of vessels they try to escape in. That told us this was not their first encounter with refugees.

We headed back out of the fort and towards the boat for an early lunch. Then it was on to snorkeling. We retrieved our gear and headed to the water. It had been about 12 years since I had attempted snorkeling, so I knew it would take me a while to get used to it. Shelby was first in and immediately took off out in the water - she was a natural pro and had never attempted it before now. Donald took a few minutes to get his bearings, but was soon out there as well. Stephen and I both struggled a bit and stuck together for moral support, since the 2 experts had left us, that is all we could do. After a little while we were more relaxed and we were swimming around too. We saw tons of coral and tropical fish along with other colorful water plants. Donald saw an eel and a sting ray. It was all pretty spectacular. As we were swimming next the moat, we hear some people making lots of noise - pretty hard to hear when you are under the water. I come up and hear them talking excitedly, so I figured they found something pretty cool but they wee a ways out so I went back down and continued snorkeling. I hear them again and so I came back up, took off my gear and hear them yell "crocodile" and "headed your way". What? Are you kidding? I look around and see all 7 feet of him swimming amongst all the people snorkeling. I look for Shelby and tell her what is going on and then find Stephen and fill him in to. He can't see it for he didn't have his glasses (glasses and snorkel mask do not work together). I then find Donald - he is between us and the crocodile. The croc is only about 20 feet from us. Donald took a few back strokes to put some distance but not cause attention and we all watch it to see where it is going. All except Shelby - she took off for the beach. It was every man for himself in her eyes and when I saw her she had practically made it back while we were still out there. I have never seen her move so fast. We decided that was a sign for us to call it quits and all got out of the water. The crocodile jus kept swimming, not really bothering anyone - just scaring them.

We dried off, returned our gear and rested a bit. All that excitement wore us out. We then saw a group of people dressed mostly in white walking with a park ranger. We determined that it was the group of refugees we were told about. I counted 15 refugees. It would appear that the park rangers had given them clothing and were telling them a bit about the island. They also checked on the boat, which was getting pretty full of water. They determined they couldn't go anywhere with the boat in that current condition. We also concluded since the park rangers had given them clothing, they must keep some on hand for such instances - indicating that refugees arrive there often. We estimate that it is about 80 miles from Cuba to Dry Tortugas - a long way - especially in their small vessel. After we returned to land, we refreshed our memory on how the US handles Cuban refugees. If they make it on US soil by their on accord, they can stay. Though Dry Tortugas is US soil, we are not sure if they are then given passage to the inland or if they still have to make it inland by their own accord. Before we left, we did notice that the park ranger had assisted and drained their boat - perhaps to send them back out on the water? The photo depicts their condition aboard their vessel and what appears to be a car engine sitting in the middle. I cannot imagine living a life that would be better by traveling in such a vessel in sheer hopes of being allowed to be a refugee in a foreign country with nothing - not even clothing.

The sun, crocodile, refugees, snorkeling, touring - we were all quite tired. Donald and Shelby went back to the boat. Stephen and I walked around a bit more. I wanted to see as much as I could for I knew we were very unlikely to ever go back there again. We walked around on the moat wall admiring more of the ocean life beneath us. About half way around we see the crocodile again. We walked while he swam. We were able to get a picture of him and safely that time. We continued on around making sure no other people were close by and in danger of the croc and then headed back to the boat as well. Everyone boarded and we on our way back to main land.

After another 2 1/2 hours we were back in Key West. We deboarded for the final time, found our car and headed back up US 1 to Key Largo. We arrived just after the sun set. The hotel was very nice and only scheduled for one night. I wish we could have stayed longer to take advantage of their numerous amenities, but time was not on our side. Tomorrow we head home.

Additional photos below
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23rd June 2014

I had forgotten what a wonderful job you do telling about your trips!!! I hope you keep all the blogs with the pictures and Stephen and Shelby can visit again when they can hardly remember that they were there. You need to write us all a book too since you do such a good job. I have enjoyed all the blogs and hope for a safe trip home for the three of you all. Love you all!
14th June 2015

Dry Tortugas
I'm a diver and this location has always been on my must do list. Looks like the above ground has a lot to offer also.

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