Dry Tortugas National Park is a different kind of park than what you may be used to if you have only seen or experienced those in the American west. There are no bears, cougars, or bighorn sheep. No snowcapped mountains, majestic waterfalls or grand canyons either.
Another way Dry Tortugas is different is that it is difficult to get to. To visit one of the iconic National Parks out west, all it takes is a car and depending on where you live in our grand country, 15 minutes to 30 hours of drive time and you are there. Dry Tortugas is only accessible by seaplane or boat. If you don’t happen to have a seaplane or boat then you must rent a seat on one from somewhere in the Florida Keys.
The other thing different about Dry Tortugas is the name. For one thing, it’s not all that dry. Approximately 99% of this National Park is sparkling turquoise caribbean sea. In this case, dry refers to the lack of fresh water. However dry could have referred to the fact that the closest rum drink is 70 miles east in Key West. Captain Jack Sparrow would have been so disappointed.
My journey to Dry Tortugas began with a Delta flight from the ATL to Key West. After 3 days of doing my best to emulate Captain Jack by consuming large quantities of rum by the sea, pool, and large piles of fresh seafood, it was time to get an Uber. Uber was kind enough to take my wife and me from the Marriott Beachside resort and drop us off right at the Key West Ferry Terminal promptly at 6:45am. We then checked in for a 3 hour tour….
“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailin’ man, the Skipper brave and sure, five passengers set sail that day, for a three hour tour, a three hour tour.
The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed. If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost….”
Oh wait, that’s not right. It seems a bit more accurate to say it was a 2.5 hour voyage one way, about 150 passengers, and the sea was calm and smooth as the sun rose lazily from the east. Now that I think about it, it seems the ferry was patriotically named the Yankee Freedom and that first mate seemed to be a little more competent than Gilligan.
We finally started to board and shoved off about 8:00am. There was plenty of seating inside the ferry, but I was content to stand at the bow and enjoy the salty breeze and watch for loggerhead turtles (saw three). The trip passed quickly enough and on schedule we arrived at Dry Tortugas at 10:30am.
Dry Tortugas is the name for seven small islands clustered together. A few of them are just small spits of sand only visited by turtles and birds. Fort Jefferson takes up the majority of Garden Key which is where we docked. Bush Key and Long Key sit tantalizingly close, but are off limits as nesting bird habitats. Loggerhead Key is visible on the horizon with its lighthouse the tallest structure in sight.
The main activities at Dry Tortugas are swimming, snorkeling, and exploring the fort. I decided that a quick trip around the island walking most of the way on the brick wall separating the ocean from the moat around the fort would be the best way to start. The water was clear and you could easily see surprisingly large fish swimming right by the wall.
I then checked out the snorkeling gear and went to the beach to begin to snorkel. I discovered that I was a tentative snorkeler. It didn’t help that those braver than me were gleefully sharing about their sightings of barracuda, giant stingrays, seven foot tarpons and even a nurse shark. I found that hanging by the brick wall I was able to see plenty of colorful fish and stay near an escape route. After I ran into some 4-5 foot long fish, I decided it was time to explore the fort.
Fort Jefferson is a 3 story fort. The views from the top are gorgeous. The water is so clear you can see the fish circling the island. The second level has windows that make exquisite pictures. The bottom level is the only consistent shaded place on the island and houses the National Park Visitor Center.
After a glorious and quick 4 hours in Dry Tortugas it was time to board the Yankee Freedom to return to Key West. The return trip was very different than the trip out. The boat opened a bar and it turned into a 2.5 hour booze cruise. Captain Jack would have approved. By the time we arrived most everyone was passed out. It was a great day. rk