The Dry Tortugas

January 12, 2009

Today was the second (but not the last!) early, early morning for the Marine Biology class here at SeaCamp. We visited the Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas.

The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of seven islands about 78 miles west of Key West. They were first described by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and named for the large sea turtle population. Originally described as eleven islands, some have been reclaimed by the sea through hurricanes and the changing currents.

The islands have a long history as a stopover for ships and during the Civil War, the Union forces started work on a grand fort that would protect the southern coastline of the United States. The islands were an important stopover for commerce that eventually made its way up the Mississippi River.

The area surrounding the islands is also an important marine habitat and home to a large population of nurse sharks that Dr. carrier has studied for the last 20 years.

The only way out to the islands is by a two hour boat ride. The boat (the Yankee Freedom) leaves the dock at 8AM sharp, which meant a 6:30AM departure from SeaCamp.

Once we were on the boat, the students split into two groups; those who were awake and those who slept!

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Alyssa Porada and Katie Waudby on the bow of the Yankee Freedom. The Marquesas Keys (about 30 miles from Key West) can be seen in the background.

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Several of the Albion students asleep on the Yankee Freedom.

The first thing we did when we arrived at the Dry Tortugas was to take the tour of the historic fort on the island.

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The fort encompasses 12 acres of the 17 acre island and is the largest masonary fort in in the US.

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It was used as a prison during the Civil War. The most famous prisoner lodged there was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth leg after he shot Abraham Lincoln.

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Mikki Burger and Jen Hopkins pose on the top of the fort walls.

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Jen Hopkins, Tim Cameron and Kelyn Carlson on the top of the Fort with the blue, blue water of the Gulf of Mexico in the background.

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Andrew Bagby, Chris Metz and Richard Frenchi with Naturalist “Tortuga Jack” and the Yankee Freedom in the background.

With such blue and inviting water in the background, we quickly donned our snorkeling gear to explore the waters around Fort Jefferson.

In 2007, the waters around the Dry Tortugas were designated as a Research Natural Area. This designation prohibits fishing or anchoring in the waters. Dr. Carrier’s research is based in the Tortugas and worked to establish a preserve for the mating sharks he studies, a protection that was granted in 1998. This protected area, along with the adjacent Tortugas Ecological Reserve, creates the largest marine reserve in the US. The area is known to be a hatchery area for several species of marine animals, including fish, sharks and birds. It is hoped that this protected area will build up and protect spawning areas for a wide variety of fish.

The waters were clear and we saw many interesting things including:

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A bristle worm (don’t touch!)

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Christmas Tree Worms on coral (if you touch them, they suck back into their body!)

But the most exciting part of the day – at least for one old guy – was the capture of a small nurse shark, probably not more than 1-2 weeks old!!!.

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(Don’t do this at home folks. Dr. Carrier is a trained scientist who has worked with nurse sharks for 40 years and knows how to capture these little beauties without hurting them. If you see a shark while snorkeling, do the right thing and admire from afar. Don’t try to touch!!)

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What surprised Dr. Carrier most was the small size of the shark; not more than 10 inches. This is by far the smallest shark that he’s caught in the wild.

Dr. Carrier and his colleagues (Wes Pratt and Dr. Nick Whitney (Albion class of 2000) of Mote Marine Lab and Dr. Ed Heist of S. Illinois University) have been seeking these newborn (“neonates”) nurse sharks for the last ten years and today’s discovery marks an important event in his studies..

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Kelyn Carlson, whose keen eyes spotted the baby shark, shares Dr. Carrier’s excitement at her discovery.

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The proud papa! And a day to remember for all… And “Baby Kelyn” was released back to her home in the pristine waters of the Dry Tortugas.

Before we left, we had another group photo to commemorate the day:

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Photo Credits: Mary Applegate, Katie Waudby, Alyssa Porada and Vanessa McCaffrey

*Disclaimer** Any mistakes made in this post are the fault of a chemist, not any biologist on this trip!

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