Dry Tortugas National Park can only be reached by boat or seaplane, limiting its visitors to just around 60,000 annually. Last year, America's national parks received more than 300 million visitors, which can be contrasted with the aforementioned. Considering what's involved, it's not surprising to reach there. Key West, Florida serves as the starting point, and options include a full-day boat ride or half and full-day seaplane trips, assuming personal watercraft is unavailable.
At 7:30, I checked in at the Key West Seaplane Adventures office and chose the seaplane flight for an 8:00 am departure. In spite of being late March, the sun had just risen and had been filtered by wisps of pink and orange clouds. After the arrival of the remaining nine passengers, we were briefed, introduced to our pilot named Gary, and proceeded together to the tarmac to board the DHC-3 DeHavilland Turbine Otter Amphibian. I jumped at the opportunity when Gary offered me the co-pilot seat on the plane that is capable of carrying 10 passengers plus the pilot.
Gary has been making round trips to Dry Tortugas for several years by plane. On that day, he planned to travel back and forth to Dry Tortugas five times and fly back alone to Key West in the early morning.
Ready for takeoff
After fastening our seat belts and putting on our headphones, Gary began to narrate our early morning adventure as we taxied on the runway. I started my video camera and suddenly we were flying towards the morning sun in an eastern direction, swiftly turning south and then west for an aerial perspective of Key West. Not until that moment did I realize the excitement of landing in a location that I had previously only envisioned in my mind - a place with turquoise waters, green sea turtles, vibrant coral, frigatebirds, shipwrecks, and a coastal fortress that had been standing for almost 170 years.
From the co-pilot's seat, Key West, including its hotels, Duvall Street, and Mallory Square, quickly disappeared from sight. Gary played Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" on our headphones, and I wasn't sure how to react to his first choice of music.
Flying to Dry Tortugas
At a speed of 130 knots, we flew over an expanse known as the "Flats," which is a shallow body of water that extends almost 20 miles to the west and ranges in depth from 3 to 5 feet. At an altitude of only 500 feet above the water, we observed numerous Loggerhead turtles swimming around in the shallows, as we flew overhead.
We directly crossed Marquesas Islands, a coral atoll, located 25 miles out, and then passed over an area named the "Quicksands," characterized by 30-feet deep water and a sea bed consisting of ever-changing sand dunes. Mel Fisher, the treasure hunter, discovered the Spanish Galleons Antocha and Margarita along with over $500 million worth of gold and silver scattered across an eight-mile zone in this location. The site remains the focus of their work and, to this day, they frequently discover enormous Spanish Emeralds.
From my position in the cockpit, it took no time for me to distinguish Garden Key's Fort Jefferson, Bush Key and the Loggerhead Key's lighthouse towards west.
A Brief Background
After the acquisition of Florida from Spain (1819-1821), the United States deemed it crucial to safeguard the 75 mile link joining the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Ocean. This was because whoever held the region could potentially dominate trade along the Gulf Coast.
Commenced in 1847 on Garden Key, Fort Jefferson was left incomplete despite spending over $250,000 by 1860. During the Civil War, it also functioned as a distant prison facility, despite being the biggest coastal fort in 19th century America. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln, was the most famous inmate. Mudd served a prison sentence on the Dry Tortugas from 1865 to 1869 after being convicted of conspiracy. The fort was utilized as a military prison until 1874.
Gary turned the De Havilland to the right, giving a magnificent sight of the islands and Fort Jefferson. He then flew the seaplane against the wind to ensure a comfortable landing. The landing was the most pleasing one I've ever encountered, be it on land or sea. Our glide over the turquoise waters was gentle and effortless, and we proceeded towards the shore. After one additional roar of the engines and a rapid turn, we arrived at the shore and were prepared to disembark.
At approximately 8:30 AM, when we arrived, apart from a group of 10 passengers on board, a small group of campers at one end of Garden Key, and some staff members of the National Park Service, nobody else was occupying the island.
While observing the seaplane departing towards Key West, I became aware of how secluded we were in this distant oceanic realm.
Although it was still somewhat cool, the sun was bringing up the temperature rapidly. Utilizing the morning light, I entered the fort and climbed a spiral staircase before emerging from the Garden Key lighthouse, which was constructed in 1825. The 167 foot tall “new” lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, completed in 1858, continues to warn mariners of shallow waters, rendering the old lighthouse obsolete.
A spectacular 360 degree panorama was provided by the view from atop of Fort Jefferson. Apart from the small pieces of land that form the park, there was a vast expanse of sky and sea in all directions.
The Dry Tortugas National Park, located at the farthest point of the Florida Keys, is nearer to Cuba than to the mainland of America. Only 93 of the park's 64,000 acres, which constitute a group of seven islands primarily made up of sand and coral reefs, are visible above water. Simply spits of white coral sand, the three easternmost keys contrast with Loggerhead Key, which spans 49 acres and marks the western boundary of the island chain, located three miles away. The sandy keys in the park are always changing due to the influence of tides, currents, weather, and climate. Indeed, the ecosystem's vulnerability is demonstrated by the complete disappearance of four islands from 1875 to 1935.
Approaching Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson.
The third largest barrier reef system outside of Australia and Belize consists of the coral reefs surrounding it.
The near-pristine natural resources of the Dry Tortugas, including seagrass beds, fisheries, and sea turtle and bird nesting habitat, are widely acknowledged.
Bush Key, which is situated approximately 100 yards from Fort Jefferson, is inhabited by a wide variety of birds that are commonly found on the islands. It is characterized by a combination of mangrove, sea oats, bay cedar, sea grape, and prickly pear cactus, which accurately depict the islands' original nature.
Between February and September every year, up to 100,000 sooty terns migrate from the Caribbean Sea and west-central Atlantic Ocean to breed on the Dry Tortugas islands, creating a remarkable wildlife display. Brown noddies, roseate terns, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, and the Magnificent frigatebird, known for its 7-foot wingspan, also make their nests in this location. Despite the closure of Bush Key to visitors, the skies were filled with hundreds, if not thousands of birds whose screeches and calls disrupted the otherwise peaceful atmosphere.
Fort Jefferson National Monument was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 4, 1935, using the Antiquities Act. The monument was enlarged in 1983 and then, on October 26, 1992, was renamed Dry Tortugas National Park by an act of Congress for the purpose of safeguarding the island and marine ecosystem, as well as conserving Fort Jefferson and underwater cultural artifacts like sunken ships.
Within the park, apart from camping on Garden Key, no water, food, bathing facilities, supplies, or public lodging can be found. A wi-fi hotspot has been set up by the National Park Service specifically for the dock area. Here, visitors, campers, and boaters can scan a QR code and download PDFs to their phone or tablet. It is mandatory for them to pack out any items they brought in. The concept is likely to gain popularity due to the abundance of mobile devices, which will decrease the necessity for printing and discarding paper brochures. Fort Jefferson contains a small visitor center that showcases some exhibits and presents a brief video. Crossing the entranceway, I came across a tiny office where the National Park Service staff in charge of preserving and overseeing the park were located.
I pictured that the islands had a similar appearance to when they were discovered by the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1531. He called the islands and nearby waters "Las Tortugas" or "The Turtles" because they were home to a variety of loggerhead, hawksbill, leatherback, and green turtles. For almost three centuries, pirates utilized turtles for their meat and eggs, raided ships passing by, and stole from the nests of roosting sooty and noddy terns. Nautical charts started to indicate that The Tortugas lacked fresh water, and consequently, the name of the islands was changed to The Dry Tortugas.
Shipping, trade, and wealth obtained from the New World.
Spanish ships returning to the European mainland from the Gulf Coast of Florida, Veracruz and the Caribbean frequently passed through the Dry Tortugas, which were also sailed by explorers. The Dry Tortugas functioned as a crucial trade route and also served as a notable landmark for ships navigating the Gulf's coastline. During the period in which Florida was governed by Spain, merchants utilized this path to convey goods such as coffee, tobacco, cotton, meat, livestock, and other merchandise across the Atlantic in return for silver and gold from the New World.
North America boasts of some of the finest snorkeling spots.
Despite being on a half-day seaplane trip, I managed to squeeze in a brisk swim and snorkeling session on the west side of Garden Key.
In the late 1800s, the piers and coaling warehouses built by the US Navy for refueling were destroyed by strong storms, leaving only their underpinnings. Visitors can now observe bigger fish such as tarpon, grouper, barracuda, and the occasional shark due to the presence of these pilings and the deeper water resulting from the dredged channel.
Although I have owned my GoPro for years, I had never submerged it in water. However, I was delighted to discover its capabilities when I eventually entered the water. The gentle current caused the multi-colored sea fans to sway. Reef fish, which possess bright and bold hues of red, yellow, green, and blue, blend in with the brilliant coral and sea grasses. Although turtle populations have decreased, you can still spot green, loggerhead, hawksbill, and leatherback sea turtles.
While heading towards the changing rooms at the dock, I saw the seaplane touching down for my return flight and comprehended that my time at Dry Tortugas was concluding. Assuming the opportunity arises again, I will undoubtedly choose to participate in the entire day excursion.
One week later, while shoveling snow from the driveway upon returning to Colorado, a small plane flew over and reminded me of my trip to Dry Tortugas, where I experienced bright sun, crystal clear waters, an abundance of life above and below the water, and a surreal landscape that seemed distant now. Even though I had witnessed it firsthand, the beauty and seclusion of it were so mesmerizing that it was difficult to fully comprehend.