Forts and Fish: Snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park
One of the best surprises on our Key West trip was that Geoff had planned a day trip on the Yankee Freedom to Dry Tortugas National Park. We love visiting national parks, and a couple of years ago on a trip to the Smoky Mountains, I purchased a National Park Passport. I love collecting cancellation stamps each place we go. Last year, I was able to add the Everglades stamp. When I did, I mentioned how amazing it would be to make the trip down to the Dry Tortugas. I knew that this park was the most remote being that it can only be accessed by plane or boat. To my excitement, I would be able to spend the day at this beautiful location and add another stamp to my passport.
The day began early with us walking to the dock at 6:30am for our 7am check in time. We boarded the ferry and opted to sit inside on the upper level. We had the pleasure of sitting with a lovely couple from Pennsylvania, Kurt and Joann, who I promised to mention in my blog. (Sorry it took me so long to post this blog, Kurt and Joann.) We spent most of the two hour trip trading travel stories over our breakfast. The continental breakfast had many choices from fruit to hard boiled eggs to cheeses and cereal. Geoff and I loaded up our plates while our new friends kept an eye on our belongings and held our seats.
As we sailed the 70 miles toward Fort Jefferson, the crew gave information both on our vessel and on our destination. The crew warned us about using the head and how every trip someone would get a surprise while using the facilities because they had not secured the door properly. They warned us that when we thought the door was locked to give it an extra twist. When I took the opportunity to use the head mid-trip, I remembered the advice, and twisted the lock as far as I thought it would go. It wasn’t enough. I got the nice surprise as an unsuspecting gentleman opened the door while I was midstream. Both of us embarrassed, we avoided eye contact as I exited.
As we neared the Dry Tortugas, there was a distinct change in the water. From the deep blue depths, different shades of aqua began to emerge signifying more shallow waters. Then on the horizon we spotted Fort Jefferson looking like a castle in the middle of the sea, complete with a moat.
Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the islands in 1513 and named them because of the numerous sea turtles he found and ate while there. With the little water found on the island, they were renamed the Dry Tortugas.
Fort Jefferson is a beauty located on Garden Key. Constructed by the Navy in 1846, it was used as a Civil War prison and was known for its harsh conditions. It was never completed, but contains more than 16 million bricks making it the largest masonry structure in the United States. It’s pentagonal shape takes up nearly all of Garden Key. Only a few small beaches and a camping area lie on the outside of the fort. In fact, only one percent of Dry Tortugas National Park is above water. The 99% of the park that is underwater is what we were looking most forward to visiting.
We arrived and disembarked the ferry just before 10:30. We would have until 3 to explore the island. Geoff and I differed on our strategy to make the most of our day. I opted for exploring the fort, eating lunch on the ferry, and snorkeling for the remainder of our time. Geoff wanted to do this in reverse. I had a feeling that once we were in the water, we both would not want to get out, so we explored the fort first.
We wandered the grounds taking in the beautiful masonry arches much like those we saw in Fort Zach the day before. I was mesmerized by the perfection as I stood in the center of one and looked down the row of perfectly positioned arches.
We ascended the stairs to the second floor. Crew and rangers had warned not to get too close to the edge as the bricks could crumble. It was refreshing that there were no handrails or barriers of any kind preventing us from going to the edge. The photo opportunities were endless, and I could have easily spent hours photographing this stunning structure.
There were two 45 minute walking tours offered by rangers during our time on Garden Key, but because we were so excited to snorkel in those enticing waters, we skipped the tour and read all the literature provided to us en route. After an hour of surveying the fort we headed back to the ferry for a quick lunch, but not before I got my passport cancellation stamp from the bookstore.
Lunch on the Yankee Freedom was sufficient. Numerous types of lunch meat sandwiches, chips, watermelon, and potato salad were laid out in a self serve buffet line. Choices of soda and water rounded out the meal. We ate quickly excited for what lay beneath those beautiful waters.
Snorkel gear in tow, we claimed a tree to hang our gear. We donned fins, masks, and snorkels, and were kicking our way to the snorkel area. Before our trip, I had downloaded a map I found on Pinterest indicating the best places to snorkel. We headed out towards the coral reef easily propelling ourselves through the warm Caribbean waters.
Lightning Whelks and Conch littered the sea floor. We picked them up for closer inspection finding them inhabited, and we replaced them on the ocean floor before moving on to the next find. Angelfish, sergeant majors, tarpon and grouper flitted and floated among purple sea fans, brain coral, and us.
We moved near the moat wall where sea urchins and schools of tiny feeder fish darted in and out of dark crevices. Then the flash of silver barracuda entered my periphery. I gave him a wide berth as he watched me ready to defend his turf.
We floated over grass fields in search of the namesake of the island, but no turtles were out and about on our visit. Instead I found giant conch shells and proceeded to take silly photos with it. These guys would have made some good conch fritters, but alas, everything is protected in Dry Tortugas National Park.
Two and a half hours flew by as we darted from reef to reef just like the fish around us. The skies had threatened all day with ominous dark grey clouds all around us but never over us. As they began to roll in closer it was time to get out and dry off.
I was dying to walk around the fort on the moat, so we took a stroll taking in the structure from a different perspective. We watched other snorkelers bobbing in the water searching for wildlife. As we rounded on length of the fort the skies began to look worse and it became a race to see if we could make it to our belongings before the downpour started.
We rounded the last corner of the fort where the campgrounds were, and I briefly toyed with the idea of camping on this most remote national park. However the idea of lugging in every supply for two or three days just seemed daunting. But, to spend the night on a deserted island does have its appeal. We made it back to our tree before the rain started. Shoes on, we made a mad dash back to the ferry. As we were settling into our seats with Kurt and Joann, the rain began. I thought how lucky we were that the rain held off until our return trip.
Minutes later, the ferry was pulling up anchor and aiming for Key West. The two hours were spent sipping beers purchased from the galley and nodding off with the rocking of the waves. Our day was absolutely perfect, and even though the price tag for the Yankee Freedom is a little hefty, it is absolutely worth every penny. I can’t think of a better present for our tenth anniversary than snorkeling in a deserted paradise.