I have one of those Passport books issued by the National Park Service. You know, the kind where you stamp the passport at each park you are lucky enough to see? It’s a fun way to document your travels, and it’s even more fun when you get a stamp from one of the parks that is less visited. Dry Tortugas is definitely one of those parks, with annual visitors of only about 54,000. By comparison, Yosemite gets about 3.9 million. The reason for this is because Dry Tortugas is located 70 miles southwest of Key West, Florida. That means to get there, you either have to take a boat, or fly and neither option is cheap. I am living on a budget while I travel, so it took me a bit of mulling it over before I decided to fork over the additional money for the sea plane, and I am really glad I did.
What the sea plane offered that the boat did not, was an extraordinary overhead view of the Gulf of Mexico in this area. Our pilot Gary flew us out over water that held ship wrecks (old and not so old), atolls, and an incredibly bizarre and beautiful landscape of intense colors ranging from deep blue to bright pink. From above, you can see the scars left by boats that tried to inch too far inland in these shallow waters, which look like an abstract painting from above. During the roughly 500 foot low altitude flight, I was also able to see loggerhead sea turtles, which had a surprisingly reddish tint from the air.
It’s an easy 35 minute flight out to Dry Tortugas where you land on water, then walk along the plane’s floats directly to the beach. Once there, me and my fellow 11 passengers had about 2 1/2 hours to explore the fort, walk around the island, and snorkel in the surrounding waters.
I explored Fort Jefferson first, which was constructed in the mid 1800’s as a defense outpost for the profitable Gulf Coast – Atlantic Ocean trade route. During the Civil War, prisoners were sent here so that at one point, the population of this tiny island was more than 1,500. I was surprised to learn how many layers there were below the brickwork that was visible. “Dry” Tortugas means no fresh water is available naturally on the island, so the fort’s design encompassed a way to gather and store fresh rain water that involved some very interesting engineering. I was also surprised when I saw the old photos of what the fort used to look like and how inhabited it once was.
I wandered around the Fort for about 45 minutes, checking out the dark and spooky corridors and walking up around the perimeter of it’s highest system of towers and walls. Unlike many National Parks, this one is free of barriers and you are able to explore wherever you want. You are also free to fall off the edges if you aren’t careful.
After exploring the fort, I wandered down to the beach to snorkel a bit. There is a lot of sea grass around the area, so I was hoping to see some of the sea turtles that the area is famous for. I didn’t have any luck with that, but I was surrounded by thousands of tiny silver fish with transparent bodies and neon centers. I have snorkeled many places, and never been surrounded by so many fish! It was like swimming through a cloud of them and they moved along with me. If I moved my arms from one side to another, they followed. Extraordinary. I continued snorkeling out around the edge of the moat where the water deepened, and saw fire, brain and fan coral along with all sorts of colorful fish, but the water was choppier here and since I was alone, I decided to head back to the sea grass area, and was lucky to see a four foot barracuda on the way (seriously, they’re very cool.)
I still had a little time to spare, so I walked around the moat and to the opposite side of the island where the color of the water looks like a layer cake of blues and greens, and watched birds swarming over the fish offerings in the shallow water.
The sea plane arrived to deliver more passengers and pick us up right on schedule, and it felt like I had just the right amount of time to get a sense of what this tiny island is about. As Gary munched on his awesome sandwich and hopped onto the beach in his bare feet to help us all back into the plane, I had to smile. I think Gary has a lot of good days.
Overall impression: This was on my bucket list, and I’m glad I went, even though it was pricey. The limited number of visitors gave the fort a very spooky feel, which was fun. My favorite part was the ride out and the extraordinary views of the shallow seas in this area.
Costs: The Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry leaves daily, takes all day, and costs $175 (including park fee and lunch). The seaplane option is either a 4 or 8 hour tour, and costs $329 for the 4 hour, or double that for the 8 hour option. With the sea plane option, snorkel gear and drinks are provided, but you pay the separate $10 park admission fee and bring your own lunch – I had a park pass, my own snorkel gear, and my own sandwich.