- Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 September 2012 17:52
- Written by Patti Lavell
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West of Key West, about 30 miles, you’ll find a small group of barrier islands that were created when a meteorite crashed into the ocean. The islands form a circle with a picture perfect harbor in the center. Where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic Ocean is where this magical atoll known as the Maquesas Islands is located. It’s the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere and it’s a world all its own.
The Marquesas are a fisherman’s paradise but you don’t have to fish to fall in love with this pristine little piece of paradise. Grab a mask and snorkel or your dive gear and be prepared for some of the best underwater scenery you’ve ever experienced.
Because the islands and their surrounding waters are part of Key West’s National Wildlife Refuge, they are completely undeveloped. That lack of development means lack of human impact and the marine life is plentiful. And big. The Marquesas are often referred to as the Florida Key’s Jurassic Park. Going to the Marquesas is like stepping back in time and seeing Florida as it was before there were resorts and cruise ships.
Get ready for the adrenaline rush because spotted eagle rays, loggerhead and green sea turtles, along with plenty of big fish will be your aquatic companions. If you’re lucky, you may spot one of the enormous hammerhead sharks that patrol the depths. Suffice to say, the Marquesas are a marine animal lover’s wet dream.
If the pristine quality isn’t enough to draw you in, the waters around these islands have stories as grand as their inhabitants. In 1622, a fleet of twenty-eight Spanish ships left Havana bound for Spain to unload masses of riches that had been collected at various Spanish ports. Among those was the treasure-laden Nuestra Senora de Atocha. When she was on the western shore of the Marquesas, a hurricane of deadly force drove her onto the reefs. With her belly slashed open like a tin can, she sank beneath the surface toward her dark and watery tomb.
About three hundred and fifty years later, treasure hunter extraordinaire Mel Fisher found the Atocha’s bounty. Or at least of portion of it. The value of what Fisher brought from the depths has been estimated between 200 and 400 million dollars and no one knows how much remains to be found. Two of Mel’s children and a grandson continue to search the ship’s wreckage and consistently uncover emeralds and gold coins.
There’s no shortage of wrecks west of Key West but Florida’s greatest maritime tragedy is probably also the least well known. In 1919, the 400-foot-long passenger steamer Valbanera departed Spain bound for New Orleans, with stops in Puerto Rico and Cuba. Hurricane-force winds pummeled the ship as she approached Havana and because she was unable to enter the harbor, she waited offshore overnight for the storm to pass. By daybreak, the ship was nowhere to be found. Several weeks later, a Navy vessel found her ghostly hull sunken west of the Marquesas on a shoal appropriately known as the Quicksands. Almost 500 souls were lost with the sinking of the Valbanera.
Approximately seventy miles west of Key West is the remote Dry Tortugas National Park, which is home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. The Park is accessible only by ferry or seaplane from Key West and until very recently, personal vessels were not allowed at Garden Key. However, the Park recently constructed five boat slips that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Be advised that there’s a two hour limit on the slips so don’t even think about hunkering down over night. You will be booted. However, overnight anchoring is allowed in the area of sand and rubble bottom within one nautical mile of Fort Jefferson Harbor Light. If you chose to spend the night on the sea, take care not to block any designated channel or you may well join the list of ship wrecks west of Key West.
Aside from touring the fort, there are other things to keep you enthralled in the Dry Tortugas. You’ll find some of the best snorkeling the Keys has to offer right off the beach. Bird watchers will have a field day as these seven islands are a virtual mecca for migratory birds with over three hundred different species being identified there. The Park offers a primitive camping area with ten sites on Garden Key, not far from the public dock. As with the boat slips, the camp sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and can each accommodate up to six people. However, if the slips fill up there is an overflow area. Camp sites come with grills and picnic tables and just image the star gazing. When you’re that far from the city lights, the night sky is ablaze with starlight.
Keep in mind when planning your visit to the Dry Tortugas that there are no services so you’ll need to take whatever you plan to eat and drink with you. It goes without saying that you take away from the park everything that you brought with you. Please do be a Good Samaritan and take your trash with you. The only things you are welcome to leave behind are your foot prints.
Using Key West as your base, you can explore beyond the island’s shores and discover wondrous things. West of Key West seems at first glance to be the middle of nowhere until you look around and realize that it’s the center of all things primitively, perfectly marine.