I started out writing about my experience in the Dry Tortugas and then when I re-read it, it was boring. The Dry Tortugas are anything but boring, so I’m trying again. What you need to know: the Dry Tortugas are a small set of islands, or keys, 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, which is the last key connected by the Florida Overseas Highway. The Dry Tortugas are a national park. Inside the park is Fort Jefferson. To get to the Dry Tortugas, you must either take a sea plane, a boat, or a ferry from Key West. The only ferry that goes to the Dry Tortugas is the Yankee Freedom, operated by a private company but providing direct access to the national park.
The Dry Tortugas were first discovered by Ponce de Leon. He named them Tortugas because there was an abundance of sea turtles. Sea turtles, to hungry seafarers, were like fast food. The turtles could be stored alive, on their backs, and slaughtered when crew members were hungry. History tells us that there was no shortage of turtles at the Dry Tortugas; however, seeing one now would be extremely rare. I guess the seafarers were very hungry, and so it goes.
Later seafarers added the name “dry” because there is no fresh water. Surprisingly, or maybe not, there is still no fresh water, and people wishing to visit or camp must bring their own supply.
On Garden Key stands the largest brick masonry fort in the Western Hemsiphere. Fort Jefferson is truly breathtaking upon first approach. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century for a number of reasons: to protect the sea passage from New Orleans to New York, to hold access over the Gulf of Mexico, and to protect the U.S. against intruders. It also served as a prison, and I’m sure it was a miserable place to be. Though significant planning went into the construction of the fort, many things went wrong, like sewage contaminating the fresh water supply, a yellow fever epidemic, and such humid and brutally sunny days that it was difficult to even move.
Still, to 21st century visitors, the Dry Tortugas are a place of magic. They had been described to me as a “real life tropical aquarium” and completely unforgettable. I first visited in April 2014. The seas were choppy and I was terrified of snorkeling. Camping and temperatures were pleasant, but snorkeling was rough. I recently returned in mid-June, 2017. Seas were calm, clear, and beautiful, but camping was hot, humid, and sticky. Sleeping was difficult because of the heat. There are trade-offs. April was perfectly wonderful, but snorkeling was nearly impossible. June was hot, but the sea was a wonderland.
A person wishing to visit the Dry Tortugas must reserve and pay the Yankee Freedom approximately $175 for a day trip, $195 for an extended stay. Extended stays are limited to primitive camping for a maximum of three nights. Day trips leave the port of Key West around 8 a.m., and depart the Dry Tortugas around 3 p.m. The trip lasts about two hours each way. There is a man by the name of Marty that the Yankee Freedom staff can connect visitors with who provides kayak rentals for a fee, although those wishing to kayak to Loggerhead Key should plan on staying overnight on Garden Key. It’s a six-mile round trip that would be too tight of a squeeze to do before the ferry departs for the day. Marty meets visitors prior to their departure from the port of Key West and gives them a safety rundown on equipment and protocol for using a kayak in a major shipping channel. Marty also makes sure that the kayak and all its gear makes it on to the ferry.
The Yankee Freedom provides breakfast and lunch on the day of the outward bound trip. Other things they provide on a fee-basis, such as Dramamine and souvenirs. For campers who stay a few days but would like to eat the Yankee Freedom lunch of sandwiches, potato salad, and fruit salad, I think there is a fee of $7 for additional lunches after the first day. It didn’t appeal to me enough to pay for it, and I was pretty happy with the snacks I brought along.
People who wish to camp must arrange for camping and pay a fee of $15 a night per site to the National Park Service. No liquid fuel is allowed on the Yankee Freedom, so most campers I saw used charcoal to grill. My group and I were perfectly content to eat snacks and room temperature foods for a couple of days. I brought bananas, peanut butter, and whole wheat wraps to make peanut butter banana wraps for lunch; for dinner I ate Indian food from those aseptic pouches you can get at Trader Joe’s.
So what can one expect to do at the Dry Tortugas? Well, for one, you can see Fort Jefferson. The fort is open during most daylight hours for self-guided touring, and all levels are accessible by foot. You can also sign up for a tour given by the Yankee Freedom staff every day around 11 a.m. and again at 11:30.
You can snorkel the perimeter of the moat wall, the old dock pilings, and some small coral reefs off shore. Once I got comfortable with snorkeling, I was in and out of the water periodically throughout the day to cool off and to look for interesting fish.
You can rent the kayak from Marty for a fee and kayak over to Loggerhead Key, three miles one way, and snorkel at a reef on the west side of Loggerhead called Little Africa. This is a pretty amazing and large reef, filled with sea life and, I think, the source of the description, “real life tropical aquarium.”
You can walk around the moat, which I believe is just short of a mile, and look for life around the key, including cannibalistic ghost crabs, hermit crabs, sooty terns, brown noddies, magnificent frigatebirds, and brown pelicans. In April, you may be lucky enough to see migrating songbirds making their way north.
You can take night walks around the moat. Just be sure to bring a flashlight because falling in would be scary.
You can stand at the edge of Garden Key and peer toward the connected Bush Key, forbidden to foot passengers, but filled to the brim with nesting brown noddies making a big commotion.
You can watch the sun rise, and set, and then rise, and then set again, as it is inclined to do.
Even if you stay for the maximum of three nights, I can guarantee you won’t get bored. If you get hot, you can seek solace and air conditioning inside the Yankee Freedom while it is docked, or go for a swim. You can take a stroll. You can take a nap. You can look for sea life from the moat wall, or bird life from the ocean, or sea life from the sea, and bird life from the ground.
The Dry Tortugas are a unique and magical place, well worth a visit, but not for the faint of heart. You are bound to see beautiful things, but you must camp, use pit toilets, probably endure heat and humidity and sun, and go without a proper shower or cell phone access for the duration of your stay. Keep these things in mind, and get ready for the adventure of your life.