Discovery: Cocaine Eggs, Chapter 16

“Is that a lighthouse, Marol?” Rory asked.

“Oh, that’s Loggerhead Key Lighthouse, we’re close to our photoshoot. We’ve traveled farther than I thought.”

“A loggerhead is the sea turtle, right?”

“Yes, and they come onto the beaches to reproduce. The whole area is off-limits to hunters, but historically turtles were a natural food source for the European sailors. The unsuspecting turtles would swim up on the beach at night to lay their eggs, only to find themselves rudely inverted and carted off by three or four men. Each one weighed two hundred to five hundred pounds. Hunting turtles became a social event, referred to as “turning turtle.”

“That lighthouse island doesn’t look big enough to make camp for your shoots,” he decided. The island was simply a sand spit with a tower on top.

“Oh no, we camp on Garden Key, three miles away. If you look straight east, you can see a structure. That’s where we camp.”

“That looks like a castle, a fortress.” Rory pointed to a brown structure on an island far to their right.

“Yes, that’s Fort Jefferson. After the War of 1812, a group of forts from Maine to Texas was built to provide defense for the United States of America. This fort was named after President Jefferson and was intended to be the greatest in the chain.”

She turned to look for her brother.

“Hugh let’s go to Garden Key and see if the fort has any damage.”

“How old is the fort?” Rory asked.

“Two hundred years old. It was first a lighthouse. The fort was built to protect the southern coastline of the new United States and the lifeline of commerce to and from the Mississippi River. Remember, Thomas Jefferson just purchased Louisiana from France in 1804. Now you folks had a lot more southern real estate to guard instead of a few colonies along the Atlantic coastline. And the War of 1812 made that painfully clear.” As they approached the island, the brick walls of the fort loomed in front of them. Rory looked down at the water.

“Marol, we’re not very deep, I can see the bottom of this reef.”

“Deepwater is a few minutes south, Rory. Havana Cuba is only ninety miles away, separated by the Florida Straits, which drop down 6,000 feet.

The strait carries the Florida Current, the beginning of the Gulf Stream, from the Gulf of Mexico up the Atlantic seaboard.”

“Wow, the water is so transparent.”

“It’s warmer too. The water temperatures run between seventy to eighty-five degrees. I’ll take you snorkeling first chance, I promise.”

The boat turned south into the channel leading to the Fort Jefferson dock.

“The fort is a large, hexagonal, two-story, brick edifice with parapets along its top.”

Rory nodded. “Look,” he pointed. “The parapet is a darker color than the lower two stories. They must have added it later.”

“The lower stories are built with bricks made in Pensacola, from Florida soil. The fort stayed in Union hands during the Civil War. Because they weren’t done with the place when the war started, all the top bricks came from Maine.”

“What a fun story.” Rory smiled. “You know a lot about this place.”

“History is one of my favorite things, and because I travel so much, I’m always learning the history of the places. The moat around the fort offers great places to snorkel. Coral is growing all over the rocks, there are a lot of fish, and lots of things to see.”

Captain Abié slowed the boat and aimed for the dock in front of the fort, less than a quarter-mile away.

“See those things sticking from the water? Those are pilings from the old coaling dock. There were two coaling docks, on the north and south, and both are great places to snorkel. That’s the south dock ruins, but you don’t want to go into the pilings there. It’s too dangerous as they’re falling apart. But cool fish are living among them.”

“What kind of fish do you see here? I’m used to orange Garibaldi, and moray eels, and clawless lobsters on the west coast.”

“In the pylons, I saw a nurse shark, which is not dangerous, a lemon shark, a few barracuda, and a sting-ray. The coolest thing though is the tropical fish, the iridescent parrotfish,” she smiled. “Oh, and the blue sergeant majors, which you’ll see all over. They swim with you wherever you go snorkeling. Then there are; blue tang, beautiful live coral, sea fans that are a dark purple, sea urchins, and finally starfish. It’s gorgeous, Rory.”

Rory and Marol were on the port side, nearest the island, peering over the gunwales into the tropical watery world.

“What’s that white round thing, Marol?”

“Hmm, let me see.”

“Look right there; I see white coral down there.”

“It must be trash. Coral isn’t white, at least not until it’s bleached.”

“Someone dumped a bunch of trash, and there’s more in front of the pilings. That’s interesting.”

Hugh and Kip moved to the bow and stern handling the ropes and preparing to dock on Dry Tortugas. Fort Jefferson was directly in front of them, still imposing after two hundred years. Its brickworks still very much intact, even the moats held water just as designed.

“Why do forts have big picture window openings on the second floor?” Rory asked.

“Those are embrasures, openings in the walls for the cannon to fire. Every cannon was so big it had its special room, referred to as casements, or gun chambers. They form the backbone of the fort.”

Captain Abié cut the engine, and the men tied the boat.