If you ever find yourself looking for something a little different to do in Key West, then visiting the Dry Tortugas is a must. Located just 70 miles due west of Key West, this National Park is one of the most inaccessible National Parks in the United States. You can reach the park by seaplane or sea ferry. Or, if you have a large enough boat and an adventurous spirit, you can make the trek yourself. Whichever way you choose to get to the island, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
We chose the sea plane route. While more expensive than the sea ferry ($356 per person for 4 hours as of December 2019), it was worth every penny. We departed out of the Key West Airport and boarded the 2:00 pm excursion. At this time, the sea ferry departs the island by the time the sea plane arrives, so this leaves the island quiet and free from large tourist groups.
We found the flight to be an integral part of the experience of the Dry Tortugas. Soaring merely 700 to 1,000 feet off the turquoise blue waters affords spectacular views of the surrounding areas. We passed over the Flats, a body of very shallow water covering almost 20 miles. There are several mangrove islands, as well as one inhabited island. Talk about ocean views! The flight continued over the Marquesas Islands and The Quicksands, which is where famous treasure ships Nuestra Senora de Atocha and Santa Margarita were sunk and later discovered by treasure hunter Mel Fisher. While these shipwrecks have deteriorated away and therefore not visible, there are two others that tourists can get a glimpse of: the Patricia, a World War II destroyer escort, and the Arbutus, which was a working vessel used by Fisher’s team. The mast of the Arbutus still reaches up into the sky from the sea floor as if she’s indicating that all is not lost yet. Aside from the islands, mangroves and shipwrecks, a sea plane vantage point allows for spotting the various creatures that call the sea home.
Upon arrival, the plane circled the ancient Fort Jefferson, providing a bird’s eye view over the massive but unfinished coastal fortress. Though the island was originally discovered in 1513, it remained void of any structures until 1825, when a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to warn sailors of the rocky shoals. Construction of the fort began in 1846 and continued for 30 years, but it was never finished. It was believed that building the fort would allow the United States to control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as provide protection for Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade. During the Civil War, the fort was used as a military prison for captured deserters. Some of the fort’s famous prisoners were four of the men involved in the assassination of President Lincoln, including the well-known Dr. Samuel Mudd. Fort Jefferson was abandoned in 1874, but it wasn’t until 1935 that it was proclaimed a National Monument. Then in 1992, the Dry Tortugas became a National Park.
The ruins of Fort Jefferson are still in good shape, thanks to park rangers who live there year-round. A self-guided tour allows visitors to wander around much of the 11 acres that the fort covers, including walks around both the top and moat walls. Cannons dot the fort in strategic areas, making it easy to see why this was a key location for the fort to be built.
While Fort Jefferson is the prime attraction of the Dry Tortugas, there is still plenty to see on the island. Half of our group chose snorkeling, and the other half chose a walk around the island. Insider tip: Save snorkeling for another location. While the turquoise blue waters beckon, the view underwater is lacking. Much of the coral is dead and lies broken and crushed on the sea floor. Some new coral grows along the edge of the moat wall, which is where you’ll find the best snorkeling, although it’s still not great. There were few fish, and the most exciting part was a large, old iron anchor lying on the sea floor and a large hole in the moat wall that was cast in shadows. Several large fish floated along almost in a state of lifelessness at the edge of shadows, either hiding from onlookers or from what may lie on the other side of the darkness.
Half of our group chose the island walk, and we found ourselves surrounded in peaceful silence while strolling along sandy shores and paths. Hermit crabs of all sizes could be found dragging their homes across the warm sands—miniature mobile condominiums with some of the best views in the states. There are several beaches on the island to lay back, relax and take in the sounds of the island. For those who want to stay a bit longer, the island does allow overnight tent campers. Not a bad way to spend a night under the stars in the peaceful quiet of the Gulf of Mexico.
Whether you decide to visit by air or sea, adding the Dry Tortugas to your list of places to see should be a priority. This beautiful and remote location offers visitors a chance to get away from it all, while enjoying history, peace and quiet, and breathtaking views.