TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK

My friends and I begin our trek down from Tampa to Key West exhilarated to finally embark on our dive adventure!  This was the first trip that I had not fully planned out, which was honestly very freeing! The only thing on our checklist was to dive the Vandenberg Wreck. With no place to stay.  No itinerary at hand. We made our way South.

Not even an hour into the drive, I receive a surprising text from a friend, whom we were going to meet up with a few days later for the Vandenberg Dive, stating, “My roommate wants to know if you all want to head out to the Dry Tortugas in the morning and camp overnight?  It is supposed to be a beautiful day on the water.”  The moment I read it, I instantly knew I had to seize this opportunity of a lifetime. A sinking sensation slowly crept in when I realised two other people also had to agree to this. I braced myself for disappoint. I read the text aloud asking for everyone’s thought and was overjoyed to hear that we were all in (I knew I picked a good group to travel with)! Off to the Tortugas it was!  I didn’t realise, but from this point on, I was on the verge of many life changing moments that would be embedded in me forever.

 

The next morning we “set sail” to the Dry Tortugas National Park. Upon arrival, we checked in and took off exploring the fort. It is a fairly small island however; I could spend weeks out there soaking up the sun, swimming in the blue waters, photographing all the beauty around. The list is endless.  The night sky when you are out at sea is like no other.  Growing up in a city, you never know how magical and powerful the stars are against the stark black sky. We sat out on the outer wall surrounding the fort and star gazed for hours, even caught a shooting star.

The following morning, it was off to do some diving to warm us up for our 100ft dive on the Vandenberg. We started off with a 75ft dive known as the Sherwood Forest. This dive site receives this name because of the way the coral and plant life looks like a miniature forest when you reach the bottom.

Saturday, April 26th, it was finally time for the dive we had been waiting for!! The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg! The Vandenberg is an artificial reef that sits in 140ft of water. It was formerly a U.S military missile-tracking ship from WWII.  After sitting around for years unused, it was thought that it might be better utilised as an artificial wreck that would soon start to host an abundant ecosystem.  After going about seven miles off of Key West, we finally slowed down to the four buoys that outline the ship from the bow to the stern.
We knew that we were already starting off on the right foot when we spotted dolphins on top of the wreck. This eased my thoughts a bit. I am not going to lie, I was nervous. I was the least experienced diver on the boat and still felt a bit uneasy before every dive. I knew, once I started descending into the deep, all my fears would drift away and I would be entranced by the beauty and vastness of the ocean (It happened every time I dove). I just needed to get in the water!

We planned our dives perfectly! We were going to do one regular deep dive and one night dive.

Of course with my luck, on my first dive, I lost one fin when I jumped into the water. You don’t realise until it happens to you, but it makes a HUGE difference down at that depth, trying to keep up with your group. Due to this, the ship became my closest friend down there, helping me use it for support to propel along.

We swam thru the satellite, ventured into the ship itself where we saw cabins and restrooms. There was plenty of animal life all around, especially barracudas. They seemed to enjoy our presence and decided to hang out with us on our safety stop… What a long 3 minutes that was!!

We surfaced just in time to catch a gorgeous sunset while we counted down the minutes until our surface interval time was complete.  Before we knew, time was up!  We could begin our night dive to 90ft.  Explicit instructions were needed for this dive and I hung on tight to every word. As we descended down the line again, it was like we were on a completely different dive.  Everything around me was pitch dark. I could see a faint light in the distance from the Dive Master’s flashlight where the group was located. We all gathered around together on top of the deck and started off exploring the ship at night. Phytoplankton light up with a mere wave of a hand. Barracudas hung eerily around every corner. Stone crab larger than my head, hung off the structure. It was mesmerising.

The one question often asked about a night dive is, “Why do something so dangerous when you can’t even see anything?”. When answering this, I think back to the moment where we were huddled around, getting ready to ascend back up, oxygen running low, waving our hands through the water at a depth of 95ft, trying to light up the phytoplankton around us. You see the world in a completely different way. You realise how many people do not get the chance to experience the feeling of pure serenity. In that moment is where I felt truly alive! I realised how easy it would be for anything to go wrong but here I was, trusting in myself and my friends so that I could experience the wonders and beauty the sea has to offer. The one thing that will always stay with you is how you felt in that perfect moment.

Upon reaching the surface, I was grinning from ear to ear. I immediately got back on the boat, threw my wet suit off, and popped champagne to celebrate!  I have never felt more alive and more excited to cheer life and adventure!
No matter how cliché this is, this trip was truly LIFE CHANGING!