Updated: May 21, 2015
Dry Tortugas National Park Visit - Sunny Days Key West FerryIf you are planning a vacation to the Florida Keys and Key West, consider adding a stop at Dry Tortugas National Park. Located 70 miles to the west of Key West, this little known jewel (at least to outsiders) makes for a great day trip. What makes it so special? Take a look at the photo to the right. It's an amazing old brick fort (Fort Jefferson) dating to the mid 1800s that sits on the largest of the 7 small Dry Tortugas islands (and it barely fits - these are tiny coral and sand islands). Surrounded by gorgeous blue waters and white sandy beaches, the park is only accessible by ferry service out of Key West or by seaplane (not operating at the time we were there, Mar 2009). So that's the allure - a remote tropical locale, pristine waters, a surrealistic old fort jutting out of the water, and you -- 70 miles from the nearest civilization. There are two ferry services out of Key West that take you to Dry Tortugas, the Yankee Freedom ($160 for adults) and the Sunny Days Fast Cat (adults $145). We took a trip with Sunny Days in March 2009. The photos and descriptions below help cover our detailed review of our tour of Dry Tortugas. You can visit the official National Park website for Dry Tortugas here.
Getting to Dry Tortugas - Key West Boat TripsKey West itself is pretty remote -- you get there after travelling 100 miles along the overseas highway through the Keys. Dry Tortugas is WAY more remote. It is 70 miles further west, out in the middle of the ocean. Getting there means taking a ferry boat across the open waters for 2 to 2.5 hours each direction -- that means 4 or 5 hours on the boat, with about 4 hours on the island in between. On our trip, and on a number of other trip reviews we read, the seas got pretty rough (6+ feet swells). Plan on taking Dramamine or some other motion sickness medication to prevent sea-sickness. Even on a large catamaran, there can be a lot of up and down motion. Nothing ruins a day on the water like getting sick. That warning aside, the trip to Dry Tortugas makes for a great day-long adventure, and we highly recommend it.
Sunny Days Fast Cat Tours of Dry TortugasOur day started early -- Sunny Days wants you to show up no later than 7:30 to check in for a prompt 8AM departure. The ticket booth and check-in location are located at the harbor at Greene and Elizabeth Streets (that's a block below Front Street, and 2 blocks up from Duval -- if you're walking up Duval towards the waterfront, you make a right turn down Greene and follow it until the end..). Ticket prices are $145 for adults, $100 for children 3-16. This includes the trip back and forth to the fort, tour of the fort, free use of snorkel gear, continental breakfast, and full lunch (you also pay a National Park fee of $5 per adult).
Once you get checked in, you'll stand around for 15 minutes or so until they start loading the boat. In this case the boat is an 85 foot catamaran - The Fast Cat (see picture to the right), which has been making this daily trip to Dry Tortugas since 1999. The main cabin of the boat sits well above the water. It is a single story craft consisting mostly of an indoor picnic-table-style seating area, with a smaller rear sundeck which can hold about 20 people seated. Indoors, most of the seats are benches facing one-another with table in between -- like a picnic table. This means you will likely be sitting with strangers for a few hours, meaning plenty of time to talk and visit or plenty of time to sit quietly and stare out the window. When you arrive first thing in the morning, there is a free continental breakfast consisting of bagels, plenty of doughnuts, fruit, juice, and coffee -- grab a seat, grab some food, and start eating. The captain warned us before departing that the seas would be pretty rough on the way back -- if we were worried about seasickness, we could opt-out and get a full refund on our tickets. Only one couple took advantage of this offer -- the rest of us were committed to the trip. I like the fact that they offered this -- we went on another tour the day before where we were offered snorkeling in the rain ("you are wet already") and sea-kayaking against 20 mile per hour winds, making it almost impossible to move -- no options for refunds. So kudos to Sunny Days for being honest about weather conditions and giving paying customers an option. They also offered Dramamine for sale both before the trip and before the return, so if you forget to bring some, you can pick some up for a buck or two. But on with the trip...
Arriving at Dry Tortugas - Fort Jefferson TourThe boat moves along pretty good, but it is still 2+ hours to get to Dry Tortugas. Personally, I like looking out the windows to avoid motion sickness, but some people read, sleep, listen to music, whatever. Point being, you will have some time to kill. Our ride out was pretty mild -- the wind was coming from our back, so we were able to stay ahead of the waves and go through them rather than having them break against us. No one had any problems with sea-sickness. I recommend you walk up to where the captain sits (assuming weather is OK) and spend some time chatting with the captain. Captain Johnny was in charge on our tour, and he was full of good information about the boat, navigation, the ocean, the islands, tales of the sea, local treasure ship lore (the Spanish galleon Atocha - ask about some Mel Fisher stories..), and much more.
The crew leaves out the breakfast leftovers for most of the trip over, so feel free to keep snacking if you are hungry. After those long 2 hours, the silhouette of the fort (see first picture at right) finally comes into view as you approach the harbor. Dry Tortugas allows overnight camping for a handful of visitors, so you may also see a few private boats in the harbor or a few tents amongst the scrub trees as you approach. When you arrive, you have the option of heading off onto the guided tour of Fort Jefferson, or you can begin exploring the island on your own. Keep in mind that there is no food, water, or restroom facilities on the island -- take a water or soda with you as you walk around, and return to the boat if you need to use the restroom (there are 2 restrooms on the back deck of the boat).
Fort JeffersonThe guided tour of the fort takes about 45 minutes, with lunch being served afterwards on the boat (used to be served on the island, but apparently birds were a problem). The fort itself has a pretty interesting history, from its construction from 16 million bricks (brought from hundreds of miles away), to it being used to house Lincoln conspirators, to it's use as a coaling and supply station for ships. The Tortugas were first discovered by Spaniard Ponce de Leon in 1513, named after the sea turtles (tortugas) found nearby (the "Dry" part of the name was added later to warn sailors there was no fresh water here).
After the War of 1812 (when the British sailed in and burnt Washington DC to the ground), the US planned a series of coastal forts to defend against enemy attacks. Fort Jefferson was started in 1846 but was never really finished. The fort itself is hexagonal in shape, with 45 foot high brick walls and a 70 foot moat on the outside. Apart from a defensive fort, it served as a prison as well (more than 750 Civil War prisoners were held here), housing Dr. Mudd (you'll see where his cell was on the tour) -- he was a surgeon who helped fix John Wilkes Booth's leg after he assassinated Lincoln. It became a national park in 1992. There is also a self-guided tour of the fort you can take - we recommend going with the guide to get a lot more information. The inside of the fort is pretty plain -- grass and some trees (see photo above to the right). The best part is climbing to the tops of the walls for the views of the surrounding area (see picture to the right) - the water here offers amazing colors. Be careful up there - there are no guard rails to keep you from slipping over the edge and into the moat, and with the wind blowing strong and sandy trails to walk along, caution is a good idea. From the top of the wall here, we are looking out over the harbor area. You can see the Yankee Freedom boat dead center, while the Sunny Days catamaran is right behind it, mostly blocked by the building there. You can also see a few picnic tables down by the grassy area - feel free to enjoy your lunch there.
Dry Tortugas Snorkeling and BeachesApart from exploring the fort, the other higlights of the trip to Dry Tortugas are relaxing on the beach, walking around the moat wall, and snorkeling and swimming. If you spend 45 minutes exploring the fort, you still have over 3 hours for lunch, swimming, hanging out, etc. We started out snorkeling around the south beach area. The water and sand here are just beautiful - clear water, white sand, view of the fort. In March, the water was a little cold, but not bad once you got in and started moving around. We tried to find the coral heads which were supposed to be out here, but didn't have much luck. The area that looks brownish in the photos is actually some kind of sea grass on the ocean floor or on top of coral -- some areas are so shallow you literally just barely skim over the top when snorkeling. We saw some fish, a little coral, but no turtles. To be honest, the snorkeling was better back on the Keys at Pennekamp State Park, where they take you out to the reef to go snorkeling. We had a little better luck swimming around the pilings by the south coaling station -- more interesting coral here, more fish (though no large ones), more interesting environment swimming in and around the pilings. So if you are a snorkeler, be sure to explore a few different areas to see what you can find. There were no waves here, so just lounging in the water at the edge of the surf was also relaxing. The beach area is not huge, but plenty of space to relax in the sun (bring your own beach towels if that is your thing). Even with 2 boatloads of tourists, the island, fort, and beaches never felt even remotely crowded to us -- in fact, it seemed pretty empty most of the time.
Lunch at Dry TortugasLunch time was a little busier. When we went, lunch was served from 11:30 to 12:30. With 60 or 70 people lining up for lunch, it can be a little crowded, so consider either going early to be first in line or showing up a little later after the fort-tour crowd has finished lunch. Lunch itself is served buffet-style back on the boat. There is a make-your-own sandwich bar with a variety of breads, turkey and ham, cheeses, vegetables, and condiments. There is also potato salad, chips, huge plates of freshly cut fruits and vegetables, and plenty of soda and water. You can eat inside the boat, on the rear sundeck, or back at the picnic tables on the island -- just be sure to bring you trash back out with you. And remember, the only bathrooms available for use are here on the boat -- no facilities on the island. After lunch, you are free to continue exploring, or head back to your swimming and snorkeling adventure. We walked around on the moat wall, did some more swimming, and then just relaxed on the sand and enjoyed the tropical sun and breeze. The last photo here is one of my favorites - all that's missing is one of those Corona bottles! The boat departs at 2:30, so we headed back around 2:10. Which brings us to the ride back..
As predicted, the first 90 minutes or so of the return trip were pretty rough -- lots of pounding up and down as we crashed through the waves (that were now coming right at us) and your seat would drop out from under you. Kind of like an extended roller coaster ride. I sat right up in front to look out the front windshield -- Captain Johnny does a good job of speeding up and slowing down to time and dodge the larger waves as needed to deliver the most comfortable ride, but it was a lot of work. In the end, we had quite a few people around us get sick and head out back for fresh air. We had taken a Dramamine on the way over and one more at around 2PM, and we felt OK throughout the trip. Our advice - TAKE DRAMAMINE and sit outside on the sundeck if you are susceptible to motion sickness. 85% of us were OK, but there were more than a handful that were having a rough time with it. Throughout it, the crew was very helpful, providing bags for those that were sick and helping them get setup outside. They also offered snacks and drinks for those who wanted them. Captain Johnny congratulated us once we made it back, and we deserved it!