Mastery Tips

Dry Tortugas National Park: Fort Jefferson, Loggerhead Key, and Fantastic Scuba Diving and Snorkeling…


One of the most fascinating trips that you will ever take is a boat or sea plane ride from Key West in the Florida Keys to the Dry Tortugas about 70 miles to the southwest…  We have all been taught to believe that the Florida Keys ends at Key West and that may be true as far as civilization goes, but the Dry Tortugas National Park is situated at the very tip or end of the Keys, guarding the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico…

The only way to access this park or set of islands is by a fast catamaran ferry that leaves from the Key West Marina, or a sea plane that leaves from the Key West airport.  I’ve taken both of these, and I highly recommend them both even though there are pros and cons to each one…  The catamaran is a fast ferry ride, but it’s not nearly as fast as the sea plane is.  However, on the catamaran there will be many other passengers going on the same trip, and you can probably purchase a snack at the little snack bar onboard the boat.  If the seas are rough the day you plan on going, then the ride may be a little rocky compared to the seaplane.  But considering it’s a catamaran, it’s going to be a lot smoother going than a regular v bottom hull, and you won’t be rocking from side to side.  The best thing about the catamaran trip is it gets you to the Dry Tortugas in the morning, and then lets you stay all day touring the fort and surrounding area, and also snorkeling and diving.  Since you’ll be diving in salt water, when it’s time to board back on the boat you’ll be happy to know that they provide you with a fresh water shower so you can rinse off the salt, and there is also a changing room located on the island right next to the pier where the boats are.


The sea plane trip will take you out either in the morning or the afternoon for a 4 hour stay on Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is and then return with another group later on and pick you up to take you back.  They leave each party with a small cooler filled with drinks and snacks, and you are free to snorkel and tour the fort at your leisure.  However, when it’s time to leave there is no fresh water rinse to get all that salt and sand off, and it’s kind of an uncomfortably trip back.  The best thing about the seaplane is you probably have not ever been on one before, and it’s a great experience!  In fact, you can see things from the air that you can’t from the catamaran, including sea turtles swimming down below you, sunken ships, the closer look at the Marquesas (a set of small mangrove islands halfway between Key West and the Dry Tortugas), and the amazing first view of the fort…  You will be busy taking all the sights in all around and under you, and then slowly over the horizon this massive shape takes form as your plane comes closer and closer…  You suddenly realize that it’s an incredibly huge brick fort way out in the middle of nowhere on a small atoll in the Gulf of Mexico!  As you get closer to it, you can’t believe that it was built here, and that it almost fills up the entire island!

Then the plane overflies the island and circles back for a landing on the water and you pull into the little cove and right up onto the beach…  It’s such an amazing experience, and if you’ve never done it I think you have to at least once in your life.  You’ll see a few other private boats in the small cove anchored out, and also the catamaran ferry tied up to the pier if they have arrived for the day.  The pilot doesn’t stay for very long; he unloads everyone and then breaks out the coolers and your beach bags for the day, and then pushes off to head back to the airport for another load…  At that point, you are free for about 4 hours or so until he arrives.  You’ll want to watch out for the plane, because you don’t want to be left behind when it leaves again!


The fort is amazing; the atoll actually sank somewhat from all the weight of the bricks that they brought in to build it!  It was built in the 1800’s to protect the Gulf of Mexico from other countries during time of war, but it was never finished due to the invention of hardened artillery.  The invention of cannon projectiles that could demolish the brick fort stopped the building and it was used as a prison for a while after that.  It’s most famous prisoner was Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg that he broke jumping off the balcony at the Ford Theater after shooting Lincoln…  He was eventually released after helping the fort during a yellow fever outbreak and saving lives there.  I believe that’s where the saying came from, “Your name is Mudd…”  They must be referring to him…


Anyway, some of the best snorkeling and diving in the continental United States is located here in the Dry Tortugas, and you’ll see all kinds of barracuda and tropical fish, and if you’re lucky maybe even a shark or two!  There is a moat located all around the fort, and it’s filled with more tropical fish of all kinds.  There is a walkway all around right next to the moat, so be sure to do that walk.  The fort is a National Park, and it has a ranger station inside and a gift shop.  Walk around and tour the place, you’ll be able to see the cell where Samuel Mudd stayed and the barracks for the soldiers.  You can also camp at primitive campsites while you are there, but you’ll have to bring in your own water, food, and supplies as there are none available there.  The campsites are first come, first served, and it’s a very remote location.  I think you should stay at least one night out there, and they have campfire pits and grills to cook on.  Remember to bring your own wood though, but you’ll love it!  The Dry Tortugas National Park is the most remote park in the system, but it’s definitely worth a visit!

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