n the early hours of the night, we left our comfortable room at Islamorada Key for the Key West Ferry Terminal. We could not afford to be late for our 7AM boarding rendezvous at the Yankee Freedom pier. We were excited to sail away to an island located somewhere between Key West and Cuba.
The name of our final destination is Dry Tortugas, a name that seems straight out of a pirate story. I never knew such place existed, until I read about Scouting NY‘s trip to the abandoned Fort Jefferson in the Caribbean Sea. A unique sight that became part of the National Park system in 1935.
The small group of seven islands was discovered in 1513 by the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. He named the place Las Tortugas as his men harvested an exceptional number of turtles from the islands and shoals. Some time later, navigators added the word Dry as to warn explorers that no fresh water could be found on these islands.
Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is located 110 km (68 miles) south-west of Key West. There are no roads, your only options to visit the park is to go by boat or by seaplane. The least expensive, yet not cheap, option is the daily ferry from Key West operated by the Yankee Freedom III. The current price is $170 USD per adult. It takes between two and three hours to reach Dry Tortugas and as much time to sail back. That’s why boarding starts at 7AM, or else we would not get to spend much time on the island.
During our trip, everything was well organised. In the morning we got to eat breakfast and watch documentaries about the island. We also marvelled as the Caribbean Sea changed shades of blues. Once we arrived to Dry Tortugas, we took advantage of the free 40-minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson. It’s not mandatory but it’s a pity to make the trip to this remote location and not learn anything about its history. I enjoyed the visit as the guide made history come to life with his explanation and it offered splendid views of the fort and the sea.
At lunch, a meal is served on the boat (make your own sandwich) and after we were free to explore Garden Key. The Yankee Freedom will let you borrow for free masks, tubas and fins to explore the crystal waters around the fort. FYI: you can leave your personal belongings on the beach or on the boat but there are no lockers.
Unfortunately, the day goes by way too quickly and we had to get back to the boat by 3:00 PM. I was thankful that we could take a freshwater shower before getting dressed for the return to Key West.
If you happen to suffer from motion sickness, like me, you’ll be pleased to learn that the boat is equipped with a stabilisation system and that it was much more stable that I thought it would be. I still took a dose of anti-nausea medicine to be on the safe side. If you happen experience sea-sickness on the boat for the first time, don’t worry as they sell Dramamine on board.
There are a few companies that offer flights to Dry Tortugas, the upside of flying is that you can choose the day-trip option and spend more time on Garden Key. However, the rates are close to $500 per person and unlike the boat option, you won’t have access to amenities such as toilets (there are none on DT) or fresh water.
These inhospitable islands discovered by Spanish conquistador remained bare until the United States bought the Florida from the Spanish crown in 1819. For some time, it was being considered to build a US Marine base as to ward off piracy in the Caribbean Sea, but the idea was ultimately ditched. Instead, a lighthouse was built in 1826 to help boats navigate the shallow waters.
In 1846, the army changed its mind and decided that Dry Tortugas was a strategic place for the defence of the Gulf of Mexico. The construction of this masonry building spanned thirty years and was never completed. Between the yellow fever and the chronic lack of fresh water, life in the fort was harsh. Yet, during the Civil War Fort Jefferson was home to close to 2000 soldiers and their families.
In the end, the fort was abandoned in 1888 due to adverse climate and the grim comfort this place could offer.
By all means, take the guided tour of the fort as the guide explained to us how people used to live in these harsh conditions. There are many things to learn about this place and I found the story of the Fort Jefferson fascinating!
Snorkelling around Garden Key
After exploring Fort Jefferson, it was the time for us to discover the island of Garden Keys and its crystal clear waters. Masks, tubas and fins are available for free on the ferry. If you happen to spend your whole holidays in Florida, it might be a good idea to buy your own mask and tuba as you will be using it a lot. You might not want to put your mouth where hundreds have put it before you!
You will find information on the island pointing you to the best snorkelling spots. We were there during the month of August and the water was clear and warm. However, depending of the time of your visit you may encounter muddy water or there might not me many fishes.
I loved swimming around the moat wall but truth be told, it’s not the best snorkelling spot in the Florida Keys. There were more fishes on the corral reef at John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo. Although nothing beats the feeling of being a castaway on one of the most beautiful beach with only the Caribbean Sea in sight.
For the more courageous, you can camp at the foot of Fort Jefferson. I would love to try this adventure with a kayak to explore the surrounding islands but it’s complicated to gather everything that is needed to set up camp when you travel to Florida by plane.
Things to know before visiting Dry Tortugas
- We all want to travel as light as possible but remember that it is mandatory to show ID before boarding the Yankee Freedom III. Take your passport or driving licence and bring some cash to buy a round of frozen margaritas on your way back to Key West.
- If this place is on your must do list, it is best to book your spot on the ferry a few days before your trip. This is especially true on the week-ends when the spots sell out sometimes a week in advance. Keep in mind that you can cancel your ticket without penalties up to 3:00 PM before the day of the departure.
- You are prohibited from bringing your scuba diving equipment on the ferry. If you wish to explore the depth of the ocean in Dry Tortugas, you will have to rent your own boat.
- Remember that the US Marine has abandoned Fort Jefferson because of the unfavourable weather conditions and that you may experience it on your trip. Sometimes, the ferry will sail on a broken sea and snorkelling conditions might be averse.
- Bring a watch. You don’t have much time to see everything that is to see and it’s easy to loose completely track of time when you are immersed in water. I bought a cheap 10€ watch that goes underwater, very practical!
- Staff on the boat don’t take the schedule lightly. Be sure to get to the Ferry Terminal on time, or even better: be early. They won’t wait for passengers that show up late. Likewise, meals are served at the advertised time, you won’t get to eat once it’s passed. Another good reason to buy yourself a watch.
Is Dry Tortugas worth the trip?
For Réjean and me, our visit to Dry Tortugas remains one of our best memories from our trip to Florida. It’s an expensive day-trip but way too interesting and unusual to pass. Just like for any other travel destination, some people will be satisfied with their visit while others won’t. Here are a few points that may help you decide on whether or not you should take the trip west of Key West.
Reasons to go
- It’s a unique place lost in the middle of the ocean.
- I enjoyed learning about the history of Fort Jefferson and daydreaming about life conditions in the late 19th century.
- On the Yankee Freedom ferry, everything was taken care of in regards to food, drinking water, toilets and showers.
- I LOVED to snorkel in the crystal clear water surrounding Fort Jefferson’s mount.
- I discovered shades of blue I did not know existed
- The food was OK with fresh fruits. This might sound as a snobbish comment but food in the USA is different from what I’m used to eating in Quebec or in France and sometimes I prefer to pass on food that is not up to my standards.
Reasons to stay in Key West
- The prices to explore Dry Tortugas are high, the ferry is the least expensive option but it’s a cost of $590 for a family of four.
- If you suffer easily from heat, there is no shadow or air conditioned area on the island. The boat is air conditioned but it’s hardly worth the trip if you don’t disembark.
- You’ll send six hours on the boat but only five at Dry Tortugas.
- This trip takes an entire day, you can’t even go out the night before as you will have to wake up early to be on time at the Ferry Terminal.
- If you have reduced mobility, you will have a hard time visiting Fort Jefferson and there no paved paths.
- Parents of young children have to take great caution as there is no guard-rail in the fort and no lifeguards on duty.
- Although I enjoyed snorkelling around Garden Key, it’s not the best spot in the Keys.
Visit Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson
For more information about the daily ferry Yankee Freedom III : https://www.drytortugas.com/
Price: 170 $ per adult, leaves at 7AM from the Key West Ferry Terminal
Dry Tortugas National Park : http://www.nps.gov/drto/index.htm
One of the companies that fly to Dry Tortugas : http://keywestseaplanecharters.com/