Accessible only by boat or seaplane, only about 60,000 guests get to Dry Tortugas National Park every year. Compare that to the greater than 300 million people who visited America’s nationwide parks last year. But it surely’s really no surprise when you suppose about what’s involved just getting there. The jumping off point is Key West, Florida, and from there, you’ll have the option to select between an all-day boat trip, and half- or full-day seaplane journeys, assuming you don’t have your personal vessel.
I opted for the seaplane flight and checked in at the Key West Seaplane Adventures workplace at 7:30 for an 8:00 am flight. Despite the very fact that it was late March, the sun was simply rising, filtered by wisps of pink and orange clouds. When the remaining nine passengers arrived, we received our briefing, have been launched to our pilot, Gary, and then walked out on to the tarmac collectively to board the DHC-three DeHavilland Turbine Otter Amphibian. The plane can carry 10 passengers plus the pilot and when Gary offered up the co-pilot seat, I literally jumped on the opportunity!
Gary has been flying to and from Dry Tortugas for years. He would make 5 journeys to and from Dry Tortugas that day and his early morning return flight to Key West would be a solo one.
Prepared for Takeoff
Once we had our seat belts mounted, and perhaps more importantly, our headphones on, Gary began to narrate our early morning adventure as we taxied out on to the runway. I fired up my video camera and earlier than I knew it we were airborne heading due east into the morning solar, and just as rapidly banking south, then west for a chook’s eye view of Key West. It was solely then that I had the exhilarating realization I might be setting down in a place I might solely been in a place to conjure in my imagination – turquoise waters, inexperienced sea turtles, bright coral, frigatebirds, shipwrecks, and a coastal fortress practically a hundred and seventy years old.
The co-pilot’s seat supplied the perfect view of Key West, its lodges, Duvall Avenue and Mallory Square, which shortly light from view. Gary pumped some music into our headphones although I wasn’t quite positive what to make of his first selection: Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”!
Flying to Dry Tortugas
Flying at one hundred thirty knots, we had been quickly over an area known as the “Flats,” a body of shallow water simply three-5 toes deep extending almost 20 miles to the west. Flying at simply 500 feet above the water, these shallows are teeming with Loggerhead turtles and you would clearly see dozens of them swimming about as we cruised overhead.
25 miles out, we flew immediately over Marquesas Islands, a coral atoll after which over an space referred to as the “Quicksands.” Right here the water is 30 feet deep with a sea mattress of regularly shifting sand dunes. This is the place treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the Spanish Galleons Antocha and Margarita – and greater than a half a billion dollars of gold and silver strewn throughout an eight mile area. They proceed to work the positioning, and even at present, there are common finds of big Spanish Emeralds.
Nevertheless it wasn’t lengthy from my vantage level in the cockpit before I could begin to make out Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, Bush Key and further west, the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key.
A Little History
As quickly as Florida was acquired from Spain (1819-1821), the United States thought of the 75 mile stretch connecting the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Ocean essential to guard, since anybody who occupied the world may seize control trade along the Gulf Coast.
Construction of Fort Jefferson started on Garden Key in 1847, and though more than $250,000 had been spent by 1860, the fort was never finished. As the biggest nineteenth century American masonry coastal fort, it also served as a remote prison facility during the Civil War. The most well-known 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 function a navy prison until 1874.
Gary 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 touchdown I’ve ever skilled – on land or sea – gently skimming the floor and we glided effortlessly throughout turquoise waters and headed in the direction of shore. One more roar of the engines, a fast flip, and we had been up on the beach able to disembark.
We arrived about 8:30 AM and other than the 10 passengers on board, a half dozen campers at one finish of the Garden Key, and a few National Park Service staff, 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 had been on this distant ocean wilderness.
It was still moderately cool, however the sun – and the temperature – was rising fast. Benefiting from the early morning light, I headed contained in the fort, making my way up the spiral staircase, and stepped out of the previous Garden Key lighthouse inbuilt 1825. The lighthouse is now not in use, because the “new” 167 foot tall lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, accomplished 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 in addition to the few spits of land that make up the park, there was nothing however sky and sea in each direction.
About the Park
Dry Tortugas Nationwide Park, located at the farthest end of the Florida Keys, is closer to Cuba than to the American mainland. A cluster of seven islands composed principally of sand and coral reefs, simply ninety three of the park’s 64,000 acres are above water. The three easternmost keys are simply spits of white coral sand, whereas forty nine-acre Loggerhead Key, three miles out, marks the western fringe of the island chain. The park’s sandy keys are in a relentless state of flux – shaped by tides and currents, weather and climate. Actually, 4 islands completely disappeared between 1875 and 1935, a testament to the fragility of the ecosystem.
Closing Strategy to Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson
The encompassing coral reefs make up the third-largest barrier reef system exterior of Australia and Belize.
The Dry Tortugas are recognized for his or her close to-pristine natural sources together with seagrass beds, fisheries, and sea turtle and chicken nesting habitat.
Bush Key, just one hundred yards or so from Fort Jefferson is dwelling to a vast assortment of birds that frequent the islands and options a mix of mangrove, sea oats, bay cedar, sea grape and prickly pear cactus, reflecting the original character of the islands.
An awesome wildlife spectacle happens annually between the months of February and September, 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, nest right here as well. Although Bush Key was closed to guests, lots of, if not 1000’s of birds crammed the skies and the sounds of their screeches and calls filled the otherwise tranquil surroundings.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Fort Jefferson Nationwide Monument underneath the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. Expanded to its present dimension in 1983, the monument was re-designated by an act of Congress as Dry Tortugas Nationwide Park on October 26, 1992 to guard the island and marine setting, to protect Fort Jefferson and submerged cultural sources resembling shipwrecks.
There is not water, food, bathing facilities, supplies, or public lodging (aside from tenting on Backyard Key) in the park. All guests, campers, and boaters are required to pack out whatever they pack in, so the National Park Service has created a Wi-Fi hotspot – only at the dock – the place you may scan a QR code and download a wide selection of PDFs to your phone or tablet. It’s an idea that’s sure to catch on with so many cell gadgets, lowering the need to print (and throw away) paper brochures. Inside Fort Jefferson, a small visitor’s center has just a few displays and shows a brief video. I stepped throughout the entranceway, and located an equally small workplace that houses the Nationwide Park Service workers who maintain and manage the park.
Virtually 500 Years Ago
I imagined the islands did not look a lot totally 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 have been aswarm with loggerhead, hawksbill, leatherback, and inexperienced turtles. For nearly 300 years, pirates raided not solely passing ships, however relied on turtles for meat and eggs and also pilfered the nests of roosting sooty and noddy terns. Nautical charts started to show that The Tortugas have been dry – due to the lack of contemporary water – and eventually the islands were renamed as The Dry Tortugas.
Shipping, Commerce, and Riches from the New World
Explorers sailed by means of the Dry Tortugas and the route was frequented by Spanish ships returning to the European mainland from the Gulf Coast of Florida, Veracruz and the Caribbean. The Dry Tortugas proved to be a vital commerce route and served as a major marker ships used to navigate the Gulf’s coastline. Whereas Florida remained under Spanish rule, retailers used this route transporting coffee, tobacco, cotton, meat, livestock and merchandise throughout the Atlantic in trade for silver and gold from the New World.
Among the greatest snorkeling in North America
Although I used to be only on the half-day seaplane trip, I nonetheless had enough time for a quick swim and snorkel on the west aspect of Garden Key.
Within the late 1800s, the US Navy constructed piers and coaling warehouses for refueling, however robust storms destroyed them, leaving only their underpinnings. These pilings, and the deeper water of the dredged channel, now offer a superb alternative to see bigger fish like tarpon, grouper, and barracuda in addition to the occasional shark.
I’ve had my GoPro for years, but had never used it underwater and I used to be pleasantly surprised after I entered the water. Multi-coloured sea fans swayed within the mild current. Colorful reef fish – with their vivid and boldly patterned reds, yellows, greens and blues – are camouflaged amongst the intense coral and sea grasses. In the present day, turtle populations have diminished, but you ought to still have the power to see green, loggerhead, hawksbill, and leatherback sea turtles.
As I walked again to the altering rooms on 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 an opportunity to get back, I would definitely opt for the complete day trip.
Per week later, after returning home to Colorado and was shoveling snow off of the driveway, a small aircraft passed overhead and I all of the sudden considered my flight to Dry Tortugas – the brilliant solar, the crystal clear waters, the abundant life – above and under the water’s surface – a surreal panorama that appeared a lot farther away now. So fascinating, so remote, that even having seen it with my very own eyes, I nonetheless in some way could barely imagine it.