The sun had barely looked over the horizon as the frigate birds circling over the point of the island looked down on a cold, wet, huddled mass of Cubans. We wondered where the boat or the raft they came in was and what would happen to them now.
A group of us had come to the Dry Tortugas to do a shoot for Costa del Mar on Wild Florida. Little did we know that we would find out that there are many ways to define the word "wild".
We left Key West early in the morning after packing the Spanish Fly and another boat full of food, camping, fishing, diving and camera gear. The wind was blowing hard and the going was slow but everyone was optimistic. How could we not be? We were going to a place 78 miles past where the road ends. In this place is the same harbor Juan Ponce de Leon anchored his boats in June 13, 1513 and upon seeing all the turtles in the water gave it the first name of Las Tortugas. It is the same place known now as the Dry Tortugas National Park.
On Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas is a huge brick structure known simply as "The Fort". Fort Jefferson was built by the US government when the military decided that whoever controlled the Dry Tortugas would control traffic throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Construction started in 1846 and continued for another 30 years and was never officially finished, mostly because weapons technology made it obsolete as a military base. Although it never fired a cannon in the role of a military fort, it did become a federal prison after the Civil War. One of the more well known inmates housed there was Dr Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, President Lincon's assassin.
It is totally disconcerting to see this magnitude of a structure in this untame, remote and yet painfully beautiful area.
Incoming.... to the Fort!
We arrived late in the day and pitched our tents, with one minor problem. It was now dark, we were hungry and the 2nd boat carrying all our food and cooking utensils had not arrived. We wandered around the campground looking bedraggled and hungry to the point that some fellow campers took pity on us and gave us some Spaghetti-o's, which we took turns eating with the one spoon we had.
The next few days were spent building up a photo library which would end up being used for part of Costa del Mar Sunglass' catalog. There are many photographers who spend time in the outdoors and few who can capture the the real feel of some of the outdoor scenes. I got a chance to meet one of those few on this Costa del Mar shoot in the DryTortugas. Chris Ross was the photographer on the shoot what impressed me about him was the ability to be looking in the right direction at the right time to capture just the right image. The guy was absolutely tireless and had such an incredible eye and talent that he really captured the essence of the trip there. As they say a picture is worth a thousand words.... all the pictures that you see here images that Chris captured on our stay there.........
You can see more of Chris's work at http://www.chrisrossphoto.com/
Just inside the harbor at Garden Key
Seaplane comes in daily weather permitting, they bring in people to see the Fort and also bring provisions to the Rangers that live there.
View from the top looking out to the west.
Also with us on the trip was Brandi Bloomberg, school teacher, Miami Dolphin cheerleader, model and all around cool outdoors-type person! We were definitely roughing it and Brandi never once complained but rather seemed to be in her element, from setting up the tents to a beach-side swimsuit shoot, she always had a quick smile and was good to go for whatever adventure came up on the trip.
Brandi on Loggerhead Key just west of the Fort.
On our last night there, we noticed some lights in the distance, on a part of the reef that got very shallow before connecting to an island. We didn't think much more about it until the following morning where on the point of that island, there was a group of about 20 people waving to the Rangers on the Fort.
What had happened was that in the night these Cuban refugees had come seeking asylum and after wading in over a reef, ended up on Bird Island just east of the Fort! As the law reads, once these refugees get "feet dry" on any piece of US land, they are granted asylum.
Apparently this had been happening for several years as you can see many of the rafts that these Cubans braved some pretty treacherous water in now clustered in the sand there at Fort Jefferson. Hard to imagine wanting to leave everything you have ever known and the country you were born in to risk your life on these ramshackle rafts for just a chance at a better life.
After the Rangers gathered the refugees, they called the Coast Guard in for the long ride back to the mainland and freedom. The most amazing thing I remember about the trip is the faces of the Cubans as they were gathered into the Coast Guard cutter, there was definitely some fear and apprehension but what struck out the most was the happiness and hope when they realized that they made it!
And so here we came to see "Wild Florida" and we got quite a different version than what we were expecting, but wild nonetheless. So I think it's appropriate to end this road with how it began, with a picture that Chris Ross took that kind of says it all.