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Egmont Key

The sun rose behind a gray-scudded sky on Sunday morning, but by the time Brett arrived to pick us up at 9 a.m., it was gorgeous and sunny and heading toward the high 70s. We loaded up the snorkel gear and drove about 45 minutes south to one of my favorite places in this area: Ft De Soto Park.

Ft De Soto is a large county park located on an island just south of St Petersburg. There’s a fine campground there, every site located near the water and shaded by palm trees, which we have visited in our 1968 Caravel and the 1977 Argosy known as Vintage Thunder. Nearby is an old mortar emplacement known as Fort De Soto. The park also features two fishing piers, miles of beach, and some nice bicycling trails.

One thing we’ve never done before is take the ferry from the park to nearby Egmont Key, so that was our plan for today. I’d heard the snorkeling is nice, especially over the Fort Dade ruins, which have been reclaimed by the sea.

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The ferry is $15 per adult, $7.50 per child, and runs once or twice per day depending on season. This time of year the departure was 11 a.m. and the return was 2:30 p.m. It scoots out only about a mile and then around to the gulf side of Egmont Key to be beached.

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The island is virtually deserted now, except for a small collection of wood-framed houses on the bay side, where ship pilots live, waiting for giant tankers to come into Tampa Bay — and a large number of tortoises. The island has no public services at all, not even water, so we brought a full bag of picnic stuff and drinks.

The picnic was a success, but the snorkeling was a bust. From the boat and the shore it was obvious that the water was far too murky to see anything. To make the possibility of snorkeling even less remote, it turns out that the submerged Ft Dade ruins are off a permanently closed section of shoreline, part of a bird sanctuary. You need a boat to get to them, but there was no point on this day. Our ferry captain suggested that visibility was made poorer by a “beach re-nourishment” project (sand pumping) occurring on Egmont Key’s north side. He suggested trying again in spring.

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Fort Dade was once a town of about 500 people, complete with fire station, hospital, power plant, numerous houses, and much more. It’s a ghost town now, only foundations and brick streets remaining. Walking the ruins of the town, the last vestiges of the fort, and the beach consumed most of the few hours we had on the island.

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