Clear turquoise waters? Check. Sandy beaches? Check. Coral Reefs teeming with colorful fish? Check. A massive stone fort and fascinating history? Check and check! This chain of islands off the coast of Key West has it all…well, except for fresh water, cell service, and a way to get there aside from boat or plane. But who needs any of those things when it looks like this…
The Dry Tortugas were first discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon in 1513 who named them for the abundance of sea turtles (tortugas) swimming near the shores. Later it was used by pirates as a strategic location for plundering passing merchant ships. In the mid-1800s the US military decided the pirates were on to something and commandeered the largest island as the location for a massive masonry fort to protect the waters along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Today, the islands and fort are owned and operated by the US Park Service who work hard to the keep the history of the place alive with reconstruction projects and educational programs. Located 70 miles west of Key West, getting the to Dry Tortugas is no easy feat. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a personal boat that will get there (a bit too far for our kayaks) the options are to take a seaplane or hop on the Yankee Freedom ferry for a 2.5-hour boat ride.
Neither option is cheap — the ferry cost $175/person and the seaplane $330/person for a half day or $580/person for a whole day. Since it was our first time we decided to go with the more affordable ferry. I have to say, now that we’ve done it once, the next time we’re taking the seaplane for sure. We heard that the first ride in the morning puts you on the island early enough so you have a few hours to explore before the boat (and 175 of your closest friends) arrive. Also, after watching two of those planes land in the water and back up to the beach like a badass I’m pretty sure I need to ride in one!
The boat ride out was pretty uneventful. We gathered at the ferry terminal super early in the morning, got a brief orientation from the crew, boarded with all our gear, found some seats, and were soon on our way out to sea. The ship was fairly roomy with inside seating both upstairs and downstairs, plus outside seating upstairs and a place to stand on the bow of the boat if you really wanted to feel the wind in your hair. It was cloudy and on the chilly side so we stayed inside most of the way.
It was also quite bumpy as we zoomed over giant swells that caused the boat to rock and roll. Fortunately, neither of us are prone to motion sickness, but a few in our group of 13 had a rough time of it and spent most of the trip outside in the fresh air.
We arrived at Garden Key where Fort Jefferson resides just as the clouds were starting to clear.
With only four hours to explore we wasted no time claiming a moat-side picnic table where we stowed all our stuff and went off to tour the fort.
There is a ranger guided tour of the fort that you can sign up for ahead of time. We skipped it in favor of exploring on our own and spending more time snorkeling.
The scale of Fort Jefferson is overwhelming. We’ve toured a number of old forts all around the country and this was by far the largest and most impressive. The impressive six-sided building with hundreds of arches and columns was constructed of 16 million handmade bricks! No wonder it took 30 years to build.
You know how some national parks have all the fun stuff chained off and giant signs everywhere that tell you where you can and cannot go? Well, Fort Jefferson is not one of those places. There was a short video on the boat that mentioned the need for caution while walking around the moat and on top of the fort, but other than that we were free to roam where we wanted with no barriers or railings. It’s nice to be treated like an adult.
We could have kept walking and exploring all day, but with limited time on the island, we cut our tour short for some lunch and exploration outside the fort. Our ticket on the Yankee Freedom included breakfast served on the boat (bagels, cereal, fruit, eggs, yogurt) and a buffet lunch of sandwiches and cold salads. It wasn’t a gourmet meal by any standards, but it did the job and they had enough options to satisfy most people. After lunch, we walked the moat all the way around the fort.
Rumor has it that a crocodile lives in the moat, but all we saw was gorgeous turquoise & blue water.
Adjacent to the fort is a long stretch of sandy beach that makes up Bush and Long Key. Several storms have filled in the channel between Bush and Garden Key (the key where the fort is built) making for one continuous piece of land flanked on either side by white sandy beaches.
During our visit, most of Bush Key was closed off due to nesting birds. I didn’t get a great photo but there were hundreds of very active, very noisy birds swarming the area.
After all that exploration we were more than ready for some snorkeling. The Yankee Freedom ticket includes snorkel gear and a small map showing where the best snorkeling areas are. The wind was whipping in from the north so it was advised that we avoid that side of the island. Fortunately, the south side beach was calm and inviting.
Tim and I started off snorkeling near the moat wall where we saw some small pieces of coral and a few fish. Next, we ventured out to a cluster of large coral heads where we saw more fish — including several large barracuda — and some gorgeous purple coral. Finally, we made the long swim over to the old pilings near shore where coal boats once docked and unloaded. We only went to this area after someone in our group mentioned how cool it was, and I am so happy that we did. It was without a doubt the most incredible snorkeling we’ve ever done. The pilings were covered with coral and the area filled with hundreds (thousands?) of fish. At times the fish were so thick that they formed a wall you couldn’t see through.
Sadly, I don’t have any photos or video to share from the amazing experience. I won’t go into detail about the who and how, but let’s just say that the GoPro is now at the bottom of the ocean :( I did find a short video from visitflroida.com that has some good footage of the area around the coal pilings.
We got out of the water with just enough time to rinse off — they provide fresh warm water showers on the boat — and get changed before it was time to leave. The ride back to Key West was must calmer than the way out which I’m sure was a relief to all those prone to seasickness. The trip should have only taken 2.5 hours but about half way back the captain informed us that we were now running on only one engine. It wasn’t a scary situation, but it did mean that we had to go much slower and got back to shore about an hour later than expected. The good part was that we were still onboard for sunset. A very, very nice sunset I should add.
Overall, our trip to the Dry Tortugas was an amazing experience that I hope we can repeat someday. If you ever find yourself in the Florida Keys with a day to spare, don’t miss out on this experience!