only by boat or seaplane, only about 60,000 visitors get to Dry
Tortugas National Park each year. Compare that to the more than 300
million people who visited America’s national parks last year. But it’s
really no surprise when you consider what’s involved just getting there.
The jumping off point is Key West, Florida, and from there, you can
choose between an all-day boat ride, and half- or full-day seaplane
trips, assuming you don’t have your own vessel.
opted for the seaplane flight and checked in at the Key West Seaplane
Adventures office at 7:30 for an 8:00 am flight. Even though it was late
March, the sun was just rising, filtered by wisps of pink and orange
clouds. When the remaining nine passengers arrived, we received our
briefing, were introduced to our pilot, Gary, and then walked out on to
the tarmac together to board the DHC-3 DeHavilland Turbine Otter
Amphibian. The plane can carry 10 passengers plus the pilot… and when
Gary offered up the co-pilot seat, I literally jumped at the
Gary has been flying to and from Dry Tortugas for
years. He would make five trips to and from Dry Tortugas that day… and
his early morning return flight to Key West would be a solo one.
Ready for Takeoff
we had our seat belts fastened, and perhaps more importantly, our
headphones on, Gary began to narrate our early morning adventure as we
taxied out on to the runway. I fired up my video camera… and before I
knew it we were airborne heading due east into the morning sun, and just
as quickly banking south, then west for a bird’s eye view of Key West.
It was only then that I had the exhilarating realization I would be
setting down in a place I’d only been able to conjure in my imagination –
turquoise waters, green sea turtles, bright coral, frigatebirds,
shipwrecks, and a coastal fortress nearly 170 years old.
co-pilot’s seat offered the perfect view of Key West, its hotels, Duvall
Street and Mallory Square, which quickly faded from view. Gary pumped
some music into our headphones… though I wasn’t quite sure what to
make of his first selection: Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”!
Flying to Dry Tortugas
at at 130 knots, we were quickly over an area called the “Flats,” a
body of shallow water just 3-5 feet deep extending almost 20 miles to
the west. Flying at just 500 feet above the water, these shallows are
teeming with Loggerhead turtles and you could clearly see dozens of them
swimming about as we cruised overhead.
25 miles out, we flew
directly over Marquesas Islands, a coral atoll… and then over an area
called the “Quicksands.” Here the water is 30 feet deep with a sea bed
of constantly shifting sand dunes. This is where treasure hunter Mel
Fisher found the Spanish Galleons Antocha and Margarita – and more than a
half a billion dollars of gold and silver strewn across an eight mile
area. They continue to work the site, and even today, there are regular
finds of huge Spanish Emeralds.
But it wasn’t long from my vantage
point in the cockpit before I could begin to make out Fort Jefferson on
Garden Key, Bush Key and further west, the lighthouse on Loggerhead
A Little History
Once Florida was
acquired from Spain (1819-1821), the United States considered the 75
mile stretch connecting the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Ocean important to
protect, since anyone who occupied the area could seize control trade
along the Gulf Coast.
Construction of Fort Jefferson began on
Garden Key in 1847, and although more than $250,000 had been spent by
1860, the fort was never finished. As the largest 19th century American
masonry coastal fort, it also served as a remote prison facility during
the Civil War. The most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the
leg of John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of President
Lincoln. Mudd was convicted of conspiracy and was imprisoned on the Dry
Tortugas from 1865 to 1869. The fort continued to serve as a military
prison until 1874.
the De Havilland to the right, providing a spectacular view of the
islands and Fort Jefferson, heading the seaplane into the wind for the
smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced – on land or sea – gently
skimming the surface and we glided effortlessly across turquoise waters
and headed towards shore. One more roar of the engines, a quick turn,
and we were up on the beach ready to disembark.
We arrived about
8:30 AM… and aside from the 10 passengers on board, a half dozen
campers at one end of the Garden Key, and a few National Park Service
employees, we had the island to ourselves.
As I watched the
seaplane take off, heading back to Key West, it struck me just how
isolated we were in this remote ocean wilderness.
It was still
reasonably cool, but the sun – and the temperature – was rising fast.
Taking advantage of the early morning light, I headed inside the fort,
making my way up the spiral staircase, and stepped out of the old Garden
Key lighthouse built in 1825. The lighthouse is no longer in use, since
the “new” 167 foot tall lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, completed in
1858, continues to flash its beacon to mariners, warning of the shallow
The view from atop of Fort Jefferson provided a
spectacular 360 degree panorama. And besides the few spits of land that
make up the park, there was nothing but sky and sea in every direction.
About the Park
Tortugas National Park, situated at the farthest end of the Florida
Keys, is closer to Cuba than to the American mainland. A cluster of
seven islands, composed mostly of sand and coral reefs, just 93 of the
park’s 64,000 acres are above water. The three easternmost keys are
simply spits of white coral sand, while 49-acre Loggerhead Key, three
miles out, marks the western edge of the island chain. The park’s sandy
keys are in a constant state of flux – shaped by tides and currents,
weather and climate. In fact, four islands completely disappeared
between 1875 and 1935, a testament to the fragility of the ecosystem.
Final Approach to Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson
The surrounding coral reefs make up the third-largest barrier reef system outside of Australia and Belize.
Dry Tortugas are recognized for their near-pristine natural resources
including seagrass beds, fisheries, and sea turtle and bird nesting
Bush Key, just 100 yards or so from Fort Jefferson is
home to a vast assortment of birds that frequent the islands and
features a mix of mangrove, sea oats, bay cedar, sea grape and prickly
pear cactus, reflecting the original character of the islands.
great wildlife spectacle occurs each year between the months of February
and September, as many as 100,000 sooty terns travel from the Caribbean
Sea and west-central Atlantic Ocean to nest on the islands of the Dry
Tortugas. Brown noddies, roseate terns, double-crested cormorants, brown
pelicans and the Magnificent frigatebird, with its 7-foot wingspan,
nest here as well. Although Bush Key was closed to visitors, hundreds,
if not thousands of birds filled the skies and the sounds of their
screeches and calls filled the otherwise tranquil surroundings.
Franklin D. Roosevelt established Fort Jefferson National Monument
under the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. Expanded to it’s current
size in 1983, the monument was re-designated by an act of Congress as
Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992 to protect the island and
marine environment, to preserve Fort Jefferson and submerged cultural
resources such as shipwrecks.
There is no water, food, bathing
facilities, supplies, or public lodging (other than camping on Garden
Key) in the park. All visitors, campers, and boaters are required to
pack out whatever they pack in, so the National Park Service has created
a wi-fi hotspot – only at the dock – where you can scan a QR code and
download a variety of PDFs to your phone or tablet. It’s an idea that’s
bound to catch on with so many mobile devices, reducing the need to
print (and throw away) paper brochures. Inside Fort Jefferson, a small
visitor’s center has a few exhibits and shows a short video. I stepped
across the entranceway, and found an equally small office that houses
the National Park Service employees who maintain and manage the park.
Almost 500 Years Ago…
imagined the islands didn’t look much different to Spanish explorer
Juan Ponce de León, credited for discovering the islands in 1531. He
named them Las Tortugas, or “The Turtles,” as the islands and
surrounding waters were aswarm with loggerhead, hawksbill, leatherback,
and green turtles. For nearly three hundred years, pirates raided not
only passing ships, but relied on turtles for meat and eggs and also
pilfered the nests of roosting sooty and noddy terns. Nautical charts
began to show that The Tortugas were dry – due to the lack of fresh
water – and eventually the islands were renamed as The Dry Tortugas.
Shipping, Trade, and Riches from the New World
sailed through the Dry Tortugas and the route was frequented by Spanish
ships returning to the European mainland from the Gulf Coast of
Florida, Veracruz and the Caribbean. The Dry Tortugas proved to be an
important trade route… and served as a significant marker ships used
to navigate the Gulf’s coastline. While Florida remained under Spanish
rule, merchants used this route transporting coffee, tobacco, cotton,
meat, livestock and merchandise across the Atlantic in exchange for
silver and gold from the New World.
Some of the best snorkeling in North America
I was only on the half-day seaplane trip, I still had enough time for a
quick swim and snorkel on the west side of Garden Key.
late 1800s, the US Navy built piers and coaling warehouses for
refueling, but strong storms destroyed them, leaving only their
underpinnings. These pilings, and the deeper water of the dredged
channel, now offer an excellent opportunity to see larger fish like
tarpon, grouper, barracuda… as well as the occasional shark.
had my GoPro for years, but had never used it underwater and I was
pleasantly surprised when I entered the water. Multi-colored sea fans
swayed in the gentle current. Colorful reef fish – with their vivid and
boldly patterned reds, yellows, greens and blues – are camouflaged
amongst the bright coral and sea grasses. Today, turtle populations have
diminished, but you may still be able to see green, loggerhead,
hawksbill, and leatherback sea turtles.
As I walked back to the
changing rooms at the dock, the seaplane for my return flight was just
landing and I realized my time at Dry Tortugas was coming to an end. If I
ever have a chance to get back, I would definitely opt for the full day
A week later, after returning home to Colorado and was
shoveling snow off of the driveway, a small plane passed overhead and I
suddenly thought of my flight to Dry Tortugas – the bright sun, the
crystal clear waters, the abundant life – above and below the water’s
surface – a surreal landscape that seemed much farther away now. So
captivating, so remote, that even having seen it with my own eyes, I
still somehow could barely imagine it.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who is currently
on a quest to photograph and create posters for all 59 National Parks in
time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in August
But Rob’s professional training really started at age 19,
when he had the rare opportunity to study under Ansel Adams in Yosemite
National Park during the summer of 1979, less than five years before Mr.
Adams passed away.
Since then, he has visited and photographed
nearly half of the national parks, and has plans to visit as many as he
can during the next 12 months.