We decided that it would be best to go during the winter so it wouldn’t be as hot. After doing a lot of research on the Dry Tortugas we found that it is one of the best places to snorkel in North America. Garden Key and Loggerhead Key are the two main islands in the Dry Tortugas. Garden Key is the island with Fort Jefferson on it and also where the camping is located. We read that you can bring your own kayak and take the 6 mile round trip from Garden Key to Loggerhead Key. So, Kody and I strapped our kayak to the top of my Kia Forte and headed south for the keys from Ohio.
Getting to the Island
The best way to get to the island is through the Yankee Freedom III ferry service. Tickets for the Yankee Freedom III are $195 for camping and $175 for a day trip. The ferry boards in Key West and is a 2.5-hour trip to Garden Key. The ferry allows you to bring all of your camping gear along with a kayak. Keep in mind that the island does not provide electric, showers, or fresh water. All campers must bring their own food and plenty of water for the stay. When the ferry is on the island they will sell food and drinks to the campers. The ferry is usually there once a day and they let you know if they will not be coming to the island. We personally did not have to buy any products from the ferry the three days we were there because we brought all of our gear with us. There is an option to only do a day trip from Key West to the island with about 4 hours spent on Garden Key. The ferry also provides snorkeling gear with the tickets. We discovered that when the ferry is on the island, the island gets very busy. The day trip would be a good idea for a family bringing children. But, if you want to get the full experience of the Dry Tortugas you should plan on camping.
Camping on the Island
Since campers have to bring all products to the island, it is important to be prepared. The National Park provides camping recommendations that campers should read through before the trip. The campsites are first come first serve so when you arrive to the island, try to get to the camping area to find a good spot quickly. Some spots are shadier than others and the island can get pretty hot during the day. The National Park does have a camping fee of $3 a night per person. You pay this when you arrive to the island to a park ranger. As for the water situation, bringing the recommended amount is more than enough. We had a lot of water left over after our three nights stay. Bring food that you enjoy and bring some sort of tote to keep food in. There are many pests on the island and they try to find any food they can. Hermit crabs are all over the campsite area looking for small snacks that are left behind. We decided that the best food for us to bring was canned soup, cereal, granola bars, and some snacks that don’t have to be cooked on a stove. Eating uncooked soup is not the most appetizing but it gets the job done. We packed all of our food/cooking gear in a tote box and this prevented animals from getting in. Near the camping section they have restrooms that all campers have access to. One of the best parts about camping on the island is being able to walk around at night. The stars are amazing and there are very few people who will be there after the day trip hours. Bring a bottle of wine and enjoy the beauty of the remote beach, fort, and stars.
One of the main beauties of the island is Fort Jefferson. When we arrived at the island we were extremely impressed with the fort’s incredible size (it is the first thing you see from the ferry). Fort Jefferson covers nearly all of Garden Key island. After taking a tour, we found out that there is more history to this fort than we originally thought. The fort was built on the Dry Tortugas islands because it was the perfect location for harboring on one of the busiest shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Around 16 million bricks make up the fort and they were imported from different parts of the United States. While we were taking a walk along the top of the fort, we noticed that the cement used had pieces of coral in it. Later, we asked one of the rangers about the cement and he explained to us that resources were somewhat limited to the island, so they mixed coral with the imported cement as aggregate to lay the bricks. The fort was carefully designed to protect the shallow harbor to the north of the island. Many of the window openings had rails for cannons and could close for protection from enemy fire. Fort Jefferson had some of the most advanced weapons for its time. The fort still has many of the old weapons and the rangers will happily explain any questions about them. Fort Jefferson was never attacked and was later converted into a prison. Dr. Samuel Mudd was the most famous prisoner of the island. He was sent to the Dry Tortugas for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth, the assassinator of Abraham Lincoln. It is said the Dr. Mudd was helpful while he was imprisoned at the fort because he treated the sick and injured on the island. While touring the fort, the park rangers showed us a homemade Cuban refugee boat. They explained to us that many refugees try to flee towards the Dry Tortugas because of the wet feet dry feet policy the US has implemented and the islands are only about 60 miles from Cuba. So, if the refugees make it to the island they get to stay in the United States and they send them back to Florida on the Yankee Freedom. The rangers warn the campers that there is a possibility of refugees coming to the island and to come get a ranger if we happen to see one. Fort Jefferson is full of history, and I would highly suggest taking the free tour that the park rangers give. Learning about the history of the fort made me appreciate it’s past and significance.
For me, this was my first experience snorkeling. Kody had snorkeled many times before and knew what he was doing when he jumped in the water. He left me quickly because I was falling behind, swimming around, and was terrified of what was or wasn’t behind me. Of course, I felt as if a shark was just going to come up and take my leg off. I just decided to stay as close to the moat wall as possible and check out the fish that were swimming around. I made it all the way to the other beach on the island and got out for a little break. Soon, Kody got out after and we were both excited about the tropical fish we had seen.
Snorkeling around the moat wall is the most popular snorkeling spot for the island. It is easy to access and there isn’t much of a current. There is plenty of marine life to see around the moat wall including barracuda, parrotfish, coral heads, and much more. My personal favorite around the moat wall were the parrotfish just because they are so colorful. Sometimes people say you can see nurse sharks around the moat wall if you are lucky.
Coaling Dock Ruins
The coaling dock ruins are located on either south side of the island or the north east and are both easy to access. They are home to some of the larger fish around the island. There was a goliath grouper at the north docks that hung out around the ruins when we were there. The ruins are also good for doing a few swim throughs and there were many large schools of fish around the pylons. I suggest looking at the top of the pylons as well because many seagulls sit at the top of them.
The rest of the snorkeling adventures on the island have to be accessed by a boat or kayak. Since we brought our kayak we planned to make it to Loggerhead Key which is home to the Little Africa reef and about a mile further southwest of Loggerhead Key is the famous Windjammer wreck.
The brick wreck is a smaller wreck and can be found using GPS. The coordinates for the brick wreck are 24 44.311N 80 57.288W. The wreck is easy to snorkel and there are plenty of fish to see. The marine life has overgrown on the bricks so it is a little difficult to make them out but the front of the boat and the engine are still easy to see. It is the remnants of a brick loaded ship which was headed for Garden Key while the fort was being built.
The reef on Loggerhead Key is known as Little Africa because of its shape. When arriving to the island there are volunteers who live on the island and they will give you a short tour around and let the park rangers on Garden Key know you made it. Check out the light house that is on the island while you are there. Ask the volunteers on the island to direct you to Little Africa. It is located close to the shore on the west side of the island. Little Africa is known for having big coral heads. Many creatures live here including some large crays (lobster) and numerous pelagic fishes. The reef is quite dense and shallow so be careful not to touch the corals.
One of the main goals of our trip was to make it to the windjammer wreck. The park rangers on the island seem to advise the campers not to go to the wreck because it is challenging. The Windjammer requires a GPS to get to because it is about a mile off of Loggerhead Key in the opposite direction of Garden Key. There is a buoy to tie to but you cannot see it until you get about 400m away from it. The GPS coordinates of the windjammer are N24 37.461 W82 56.564. When we arrived at the mooring buoy, Kody got out of the boat and snorkeled around because we could not see the mast that sticks up out of the water during low tide. He found the wreck and looked around a bit and then came back to get me. While we were at the windjammer we saw a goliath grouper that is known to live at the site. We saw many barracuda, all kinds of coral, a nurse shark, jellyfish, and lots of other tropical fish. The wreck its self is interesting to swim around and dive down to. I think that scuba diving the wreck would have made it a little easier to examine because, although some parts reach the surface, the wreck lies in about 10 meters or 30 feet of water. The windjammer wreck can make a trip to the Dry Tortugas a whole different story. If you are planning on making it to the windjammer be prepared with sunscreen and plenty of water. Also, let the park ranger know you are going before you leave both Garden Key and Loggerhead Key.
When kayaking between the islands take your time and enjoy being on the open ocean. Sometimes people see Loggerhead turtles cruising in the water. I saw a turtle come up to get air while we were kayaking to Loggerhead Key and it was beautiful.
A few tips
The park rangers on the island have sessions where you can go and learn more about the National Park. We went to three sessions. One was about the Christmas bird count, because they had a few bird watchers staying on the island doing a count of the birds. Bush Key, the small island next to Garden Key, has a large amount of birds that nest on the island. The islands are also known for the Magnificent Frigate birds. The next session we went to was about global warming and the sea levels rising. They took us into the fort, had a PowerPoint and gave a short talk about global warming. The last session was my favorite, one of the park rangers gave a night tour of the inside of the fort. He had a black light and we all walked around the fort looking for bioluminescent scorpions. We saw at least 10 on the tour and they do glow bright green when the black light shines on them.
While we were there, Cletus the American Crocodile was still living on the island. We did not get to see Cletus, but there was a girl staying on the island who was just walking on the beach and almost stepped on him. He is the only crocodile that lives in the Dry Tortugas because he got washed out to the islands during a tropical storm. The park rangers are really fond of him and think of him as just a part of the island.
We had a great trip to the Dry Tortugas and would highly recommend it to others who are looking for a great snorkel/camping adventure!