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They spent holidays lighting up the night

While millions of Americans were savoring traditional turkey dinners on Christmas, Dan Jones was wolfing down shrimp. And not just any shrimp.

"We had the biggest shrimp I've ever seen," said Jones, a 61-year-old retired Army reservist who lives in Riverhaven. "They were as big as cigars."

The shrimp were just one of many wonders awaiting Jones on an island off the tip of Florida. He, his wife Judith, and Chuck Arbuthnot spent Christmas and New Year's among coral reefs, barracudas and coconuts in the Dry Tortugas, 68 miles off Key West.

The three Citrus County residents were taking care of the Coast Guard lighthouse on Loggerhead Key as volunteers from the Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla in Crystal River. Volunteers run the 1858 lighthouse in alternating nine-day shifts with regular Coast Guard personnel.

"It was one of the most enjoyable trips my wife and I have had for a long time, even though allegedly we were on duty," Jones said.

Being on duty did bring some responsibilities. Breakfast was at 7 a.m. so the crew could radio in to the Key West Coast Guard station at 8 a.m. Official radio sign-off was at 8 p.m., although Arbuthnot, a radio nut, slept by the radio.

The radio can bring a range of distress calls, from a ship taking on water to a group of Cuban refugees at sea to a man having a heart attack on board. This year was relatively calm, said Arbuthnot, who was on his third tour of duty.

"The danger of the reefs is just as great as they ever were," said Arbuthnot, a 39-year-old Crystal River resident. "Most ships with current navigation should be able to avoid it, but the possibility of someone running aground is still there."

Today, the reefs are more a diving pleasure than a boating hazard. In their free time, Arbuthnot and the Joneses snorkeled around the reefs and one of the many shipwrecks in the area _ a reminder that setting sail was once a riskier venture than it is now.

Back on the job, the crew maintained the four diesel generators that provide all the electricity on the island, kept full the saltwater cistern that supplies toilet water, checked the levels on two 4,000-gallon fuel tanks and the two 10,000-gallon potable water tanks, and checked the two 1,000-watt halogen bulbs (one is a spare) in the lighthouse.

At one time, a whale oil lamp lighted the night with the help of a Fresnel lens. Then, the crew had to get up before sunrise to cover the lens with a curtain; otherwise, the sun might discolor the lens or, shining through it, start a fire somewhere on the island.

The Coast Guard provides the volunteers a daily food allowance of about $7. Otherwise, the trip is at their expense. Arbuthnot uses vacation time from his job as a trainer for Florida Power Corp. nuclear power plant operators. The Joneses are retired.

The closest store is on Key West, so the volunteers must bring all the provisions they need for their stay.

The 35-acre island isn't as isolated as it may seem. Boaters drop in daily, often with impromptu gifts of freshly caught fish. Fort Jefferson National Monument is less than three miles away on Garden Key.

"To be perfectly truthful," Jones said, "I wish it had been a little more lonely and isolated."