Dry Tortugas — Photo courtesy of National Park ServiceIf a day spent listening to tales of pirate lore and sunken ships, snorkeling in pristine coral reefs, and exploring a Civil War-era fort on a remote island sounds like a distant dream – it’s not. About 70 miles from Key West lie the Dry Tortugas National Park, seven islands that straddle the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean. Its strategic location between these three bodies of water made it a prime target for pirates, and its shallow waters added to the danger of navigating the region. Around 200 sunken ships rest on the seafloor surrounding the islands, and the National Park Service works tirelessly to keep the location of the ships secret. Below the surface rests another treasure that isn’t so secret: a protected coral reef teeming with sponges, sea stars, grouper, snapper, angelfish, and 30 different species of coral.
On land, visitors can meander through Fort Jefferson, also known as the “American Gibraltar,” which played a strategic role in protecting the mainland. Once a Civil War-prison, the hexagonal Union fortress takes up the 16-acre Garden Key. One of the most famous prisoners was Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, who was imprisoned for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, after he was injured during his escape from Ford’s Theater.
It is possible to camp on the island; however visitors will be “roughing it” and should come prepared with water, food, and toiletries. Only eight people are permitted to stay overnight at a time, so campers must reserve in weeks – if not months - in advance. There are two ways to reach the island: by seaplane or by ferry and both offer a sense of adventure.
The Yankee Freedom II is a high-speed catamaran that departs daily from Key West at 8 a.m. on a two and a half hour ride to the Garden Key. Guests can opt to stay overnight (when booked in advance), or spend four and half hours on the island. The day trip on the Yankee Freedom II costs $165 per adult and includes breakfast and a picnic lunch, a narrated 40-minute tour of the fort, entrance fees to the park, and snorkeling equipment. The ship itself has plenty of creature comforts including air conditioning, restrooms, a snack bar, and a cash bar with daiquiris, piña coladas, and of course, frozen margaritas.
Option “B” is to travel by seaplane, and while it takes a fraction of the time (just 40 minutes in the air), it is much more costly. Key West Sea Plane Adventures offers a half-day trip (two and a half hours on the island), or a full-day trip (six and a half hours of island time). A small cooler for guests and snorkeling equipment is provided, however meals are not. Travelers arriving by air have the advantage of “beating the crowds,” because the Yankee Freedom II does not arrive until 11 a.m., and those on a full-day tour will have extra time after the ship departs as well. The flight is low altitude, so the view in route is stunning (think crystal clear-water, shipwrecks, dolphins, and sharks), and landing in the water is a spectacular experience in itself. It is often possible to “hop on” one of the Yankee Freedom’s fort tours for those needing their dose of history. Half-day trips are $265 per adult or $465 for the full day. Regardless of which transportation method travelers chose, those that visit the island will be among the elite few that have the rare opportunity to do so.