Some 70 miles west of Key West Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico, lies one of North America’s most inaccessible national parks. Renowned for pirate legends, shipwrecks, and sheer unspoiled beauty, Dry Tortugas National Park harbors unrivaled coral reefs and marine life, an annual birding spectacle, and majestic Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry stronghold in the Western Hemisphere.
Accessible only by boat or seaplane, just 60,000 visitors make it to Dry Tortugas National Park each year. Compare that to the more than 330 million people who visited America’s national parks last year. But it’s really no surprise when you consider what’s involved just getting there. The jumping off point is Key West, Florida, and from there, you can choose between an all-day boat ride, and half- or full-day seaplane trips, assuming you don’t have your own vessel.
When I visited Dry Tortugas National Park, I opted for the seaplane flight and checked in at the Key West Seaplane Adventures office at 7:30 for an 8:00 am flight. Even though it was late March, the sun was just rising, and filtered by wisps of pink and orange clouds. When the remaining nine passengers arrived, we received our briefing, were introduced to our pilot, and then walked out on to the tarmac together to board the DHC-3 DeHavilland Turbine Otter Amphibian. The plane can carry 10 passengers plus the pilot…and when the co-pilot seat was offered up, I literally jumped at the opportunity!
Our pilot has been flying to and from Dry Tortugas for years. He would make five trips to and from Dry Tortugas that day…and after dropping us off, his early morning return flight to Key West would be a solo one.
Ready for Takeoff
Once we had our seat belts fastened, and perhaps more importantly, our headphones on, the pilot began to narrate our early morning adventure as we taxied out on to the runway. I fired up my video camera…and before I knew it we were airborne heading due east into the morning sun, and just as quickly banking south, then west for a bird’s eye view of Key West. It was only then that I had the exhilarating realization I would be setting down in a place I’d only been able to conjure in my imagination — turquoise waters, green sea turtles, bright coral, frigate birds, shipwrecks, and a coastal fortress some 170 years old.
The co-pilot’s seat offered the perfect view of Key West, its hotels, Duvall Street and Mallory Square, which quickly faded from view. The pilot pumped some music into our headphones…though I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his first selection: Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”!
Flying at at 130 knots, we were quickly over an area called the “Flats,” a body of shallow water just 3–5 feet deep extending almost 20 miles to the west. Flying at just 500 feet above the water, these shallows are teeming with Loggerhead turtles and you could clearly see dozens of them swimming about as we cruised overhead.
25 miles out, we flew directly over Marquesas Islands, a coral atoll…and then over an area called the “Quicksands.” Here the water is 30 feet deep with a sea bed of constantly shifting sand dunes. This is where treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the Spanish Galleons Antocha and Margarita — and more than a half a billion dollars of gold and silver strewn across an eight mile area. They continue to work the site, and even today, there are regular finds of huge Spanish Emeralds.
But it wasn’t long from my vantage point in the cockpit before I could begin to make out Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, and further west, the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key.
Fort Jefferson, a massive but unfinished coastal fortress, is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. Composed of over 16 million bricks, the building covers 16 acres.
Florida was acquired from Spain (1819–1821) by the United States, which considered the 75 mile stretch connecting the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Ocean important to protect, since anyone who occupied the area could seize control of the trade routes along the Gulf Coast.
Construction of Fort Jefferson began on Garden Key in 1847, and although more than $250,000 had been spent by 1860, the fort was never finished. As the largest 19th century American masonry coastal fort, it also served as a remote prison facility during the Civil War. The most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of President Lincoln. Mudd was convicted of conspiracy and was imprisoned on the Dry Tortugas from 1865 to 1869. The fort continued to serve as a military prison until 1874.
Our pilot banked the De Havilland to the right, providing a spectacular view of the islands and Fort Jefferson, heading the seaplane into the wind for the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced — on land or sea — gently skimming the surface, and we glided effortlessly across the turquoise waters and headed towards shore. One more roar of the engines, a quick turn, and we were up on the beach ready to disembark.
We arrived about 8:30 AM…and aside from the 10 passengers on board, a half dozen campers at one end of the Garden Key, and a few National Park Service employees, we had the island to ourselves.
As I watched the seaplane take off, heading back to Key West, it struck me just how isolated we were in this remote ocean wilderness.
I imagined the islands didn’t look much different to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, credited for discovering the islands in 1531. He named them Las Tortugas, or “The Turtles,” as the islands and surrounding waters were aswarm with loggerhead , hawksbill, leatherback, and green turtles. For nearly three hundred years, pirates raided not only passing ships, but relied on turtles for meat and eggs and also pilfered the nests of roosting sooty and noddy terns. Nautical charts began to show that The Tortugas were dry — due to the lack of fresh water — and eventually the islands were renamed as The Dry Tortugas.
Taking advantage of the early morning light, I headed inside the fort, making my way up the spiral staircase, and stepped out of the old Garden Key lighthouse built in 1825. The lighthouse is no longer in use, since the “new” 167 foot tall lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, completed in 1858, continues to flash its beacon to mariners, warning of the shallow waters.
The view from atop of Fort Jefferson provided a spectacular 360 degree panorama. And besides the few spits of land that make up the park, there was nothing but sky and sea in every direction.
About the Park
Dry Tortugas National Park, situated at the farthest end of the Florida Keys, is closer to Cuba than to the American mainland. A cluster of seven islands, composed mostly of sand and coral reefs, just 93 of the park’s 64,000 acres are above water. The three easternmost keys are simply spits of white coral sand, while 49-acre Loggerhead Key, three miles out, marks the western edge of the island chain. The park’s sandy keys are in a constant state of flux — shaped by tides and currents, weather and climate. In fact, four islands completely disappeared between 1875 and 1935, a testament to the fragility of the ecosystem.
The Dry Tortugas are recognized for their near-pristine natural resources including seagrass beds, fisheries, and sea turtle and bird nesting habitat. The surrounding coral reefs make up the third-largest barrier reef system outside of Australia and Belize.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Fort Jefferson National Monument under the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. It was expanded to it’s current size in 1983, when the monument was re-designated by an act of Congress as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992. Its charter: to protect the island and marine environment, to preserve Fort Jefferson and submerged cultural resources such as shipwrecks.
Just 100 yards or so from Fort Jefferson is Bush Key. Home to a diverse collection of birds that frequent the islands, it features a mix of mangrove, sea oats, bay cedar, sea grape and prickly pear cactus, reflecting the original character of the islands.
A great wildlife spectacle occurs each year between February and September, when as many as 100,000 sooty terns travel from the Caribbean Sea and west-central Atlantic Ocean to nest on the islands of the Dry Tortugas. Brown noddies, roseate terns, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans and the Magnificent frigatebird, with its 7-foot wingspan, breed here as well. Although Bush Key was closed to visitors when I visited, hundreds, if not thousands of birds filled the skies and the sounds of their screeches and calls filled the otherwise tranquil surroundings.
There is no water, food, bathing facilities, supplies, or public lodging (other than camping on Garden Key) in the park. All visitors, campers, and boaters are required to pack out whatever they pack in, so the National Park Service created a wi-fi hotspot — only at the dock — where you can scan a QR code and download a variety of PDFs to your phone or tablet. It’s an idea that’s bound to catch on with so many mobile devices, reducing the need to print (and throw away) paper brochures. Inside Fort Jefferson, a small visitor’s center has a few exhibits and shows a short video. I stepped across the entranceway, and found an equally small office that houses the National Park Service employees who maintain and manage the park.
Some of the best snorkeling in North America
Although I was only on the half-day seaplane trip, I still had enough time for a quick swim and snorkel on the west side of Garden Key.
In the late 1800s, the US Navy built piers and coaling warehouses for refueling, but strong storms destroyed them, leaving only their underpinnings. These pilings, and the deeper water of the dredged channel, now offer an excellent opportunity to see larger fish like tarpon, grouper, barracuda…as well as the occasional shark.
Multi-colored sea fans swayed in the gentle current. Colorful reef fish — with their vivid and boldly patterned reds, yellows, greens and blues — were camouflaged amongst the bright coral and sea grasses. Today, turtle populations have diminished, but you may still be able to see green, loggerhead, hawksbill, and leatherback sea turtles.
As I walked back to the changing rooms at the dock, the seaplane for my return flight was just landing and I realized my time at Dry Tortugas was coming to an end. If I ever have a chance to get back, I would definitely opt for the full day trip.
A week later, after returning home to Colorado and was shoveling snow off of the driveway, a small plane passed overhead and I suddenly thought of my flight to Dry Tortugas : the bright sun, the crystal clear waters, the abundant life — above and below the water’s surface — a surreal landscape so captivating, so remote, that even having seen it with my own eyes, I still somehow could barely imagine it.
About the Author
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who is currently on a quest to photograph and create iconic WPA-style posters for all 61 National Parks.
Rob visited his first national park at age five and began photographing them at age seven on a 10,000 cross-country trip with his family. He would spend the next decade working on his own, building a wet darkroom with his grandfather in the garage and serving as head photographer for the high school yearbook.
But Rob’s professional training really started at age 19, when he had the rare opportunity to study under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park during the summer of 1979, less than five years before Mr. Adams passed away.
Since then, he has visited and photographed 50 of the national parks in the US, including those in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands.