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In Search of the Dry Tortugas

Beyond Land's End - the Dry Tortugas

Photo of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas is the last outpost in Florida's Keys. It's a popular tourist attraction accessible only by seaplane or boat from Key West; there is no overnight lodging on the isle.*

By Laura L. Myers

Getting to the remote and stunning seven-island Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West, is half the adventure. Accessible to visitors only by seaplane or a fast catamaran, a trip to this national treasure is an unforgettable experience.

The Dry Tortugas, discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, were named “Las Islas de Tortugas” after the abundance of loggerhead, green, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles that populate the park. There is no fresh water on the islands.

Thousands of rare and colorful birds flock to the Tortugas, known as the only nesting site for black and white masked boobie birds in the continental United States. Terns are plentiful in April and May.

A Fort at Sea

Visitors to the Dry Tortugas typically spend four to six hours at the 22-acre Garden Key, home to the stunning 19th century Fort Jefferson. Dominating the island, the fort is dubbed the “Gibraltor of the Gulf” because it juts out of the sea.

The largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere, Fort Jefferson covers 11 acres and used intermittently by the military from the 1840s until the early 1900s. It housed military prisoner Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. (Booth fractured his leg jumping to the stage from the presidential box).

While imprisoned at Fort Jefferson, Mudd treated patients during a yellow fever outbreak. He was later pardoned.

Park visitation has quadrupled since 1994. Snorkeling is easy in four to seven feet of water. White sand beaches are pristine.

How to Get to There?

Seaplanes of Key West (800-950-2FLY or 305-294-0709 or www.seaplanesofkeywest.com) departs Key West International Airport daily at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., with a 35-minute flight, aboard Cessna 206 and 208 aircraft, seating nine and five passengers.

The yellow and white planes fly at a low altitude of 500 feet. Half-day trips are priced from $149-$199; full day adventures are $265-$345.

To avoid crowds of ferry passengers (already on the island when you arrive), take the first or last flights out.

The 100-passenger Yankee Freedom II (877-634-0939 or 305-294-7009 or www.yankeefreedom.com) a $3 million, 100-foot catamaran with cushioned seats and dinette tables, departs daily at 8 a.m. from the Key West Seaport. That's located at 240 Margaret St., near Turtle Kraals restaurant. Boarding for the two-hour, 15-minute trip begins at 7:30 a.m., with a 5:30 p.m. return.

The trip includes continental breakfast, picnic lunch, snorkel gear and tour guides; alcoholic beverages can be purchased on return. Tickets are $89 to $129, per person.

Sunny Days (800-236-7937 or 305-292-6100 or www.drytortugasferry.com) operates an 85-foot catamaran with 95 passengers. It features similar amenities to Yankee Freedom. ($85-$125).

A Research Natural Area designation, effective earlier this year, has created a 46-square-mile no-fishing, no anchor ecological preserve around the park.

If you go, bring a camera, plentiful sunscreen, swim booties, a hat and polarized sunglasses. The park’s visitor center is air-conditioned.

For more information contact www.fla-keys.com

Laura L. Myers is a former Florida Keys resident and now resides in the Pacific Northwest. She is a past first vice-chair, Atlantic-Caribbean chapter, for the Society of American Travel Writers and a SKAL International Miami member.

*Photo owned, copyrighted and used by permission of the Florida Keys & Key West (the official visitors bureau for the Keys). All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy this photo. Thank you.


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