The Order of the Arrow Ocean Adventure (OAOA) program is charting a course for the remote and historic Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The OAOA program was founded in 2005 by Nick Digirolamo and Rich Moore, two past national officers and long-time advocates of the breathtaking Florida Keys ecosystem. From 2005 to 2009, OAOA was a diving conservation program and in 2011 transitioned to provide land-based service to the Keys in and around the Florida Sea Base. Many years of tourism and human impact had altered the delicate landscape, introducing many invasive species and eroding many of the seashores that help preserve the fragile ecosystems found nowhere else in the world. Service elements of the program began on the Big Munson Island (an island owned entirely by the Boy Scouts of America) and shifted to Crane Point, a local nature preserve, as well as Camp Sawyer, the local council camp of the South Florida Council. After more than 10 years of service in these areas, the national Order of the Arrow Outdoor Adventures committee, in conjunction with the Florida Sea Base leadership, decided it was time to shift focus to another fragile area of the Keys ecosystem.

The OA has long had success working with the National Park Service (NPS) through programs across the country. With this in mind, the leadership team has now set their eyes on the Dry Tortugas, stating, “We are excited to be expanding the OA’s relationship with the US National Park Service by providing service to one of its most remote National Parks [Digirolamo].” The Dry Tortugas are a small series of remote islands located in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles west of Key West accessible via float plane or sea ferry. Transportation to and from the Dry Tortugas will be on board the Yankee Freedom III operated by the Historic Tours of America, who are generous supporters of the OAOA program and Scouting. Overnight camping in the park is available to the public, and most visitors only get to spend a few hours in the Tortugas, making the new OAOA program tremendously unique!

The Dry Tortugas was originally used as a US maritime fort with primary defenses located at Fort Jefferson. Fort Jefferson, as Nick described it, is “a marvel to see. Pictures don’t do it justice. Standing on top of the largest brick masonry structure in the US with nothing but blue water surrounding you can only be appreciated by experiencing it.” Fort Jefferson is also a major maritime historical site. After being commissioned in the mid-1800s, it was used to fight off pirates sailing in Caribbean waters and to protect the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg after Booth broke it jumping from the balcony after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was even sentenced to prison at Fort Jefferson.

Participants in the new OAOA program will arrive at Camp Sawyer in the Florida Keys and prepare for one day before heading out to the Dry Tortugas for four nights and five days. Crews will perform conservation service projects in and around Fort Jefferson, while also getting to enjoy the reef and surrounding islands through snorkeling, kayaking, swimming and other activities. Crews will finish with one more day at Camp Sawyer before returning home. Additional program elements occur but are reserved to be experienced by participants of the program.

The new program this year is under the direction of Ted Apostle, a past foreman at OAOA and past section chief in the Northeast Region. Furthermore, Mike Johnson, a former OA region chief, now leads the Florida Sea Base as the new director. A star-studded cast such as this is sure to make for an unforgettable experience. As the first year of a new program, not many Arrowmen will be able to say that they aided in shifting focus and establishing the OAOA program as a prime force of conservation and service in the Dry Tortugas. As Nick put it, “We are excited to be working with the Florida Sea Base and the National Park Service to provide an ultra-unique service opportunity for the OA and for Scouting.”

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