I once thought the Florida Keys ended at Key West. That is indeed the farthest one can travel by car. Then a few years ago I learned the Keys continue for another 67 miles, all the way to the tiny islands of Dry Tortugas National Park. The prospect of visiting such a remote outpost at the edge of the nation appealed to me. I liked the thought of being nearly 70 miles from permanent human habitation, separated by nothing but open ocean. After some research and planning, I finally made the trip there on April 10.
Upon boarding the Yankee Freedom II catamaran in Key West, the two-and-a-half hour ferry ride began. For a while we were always within sight of land. There are quite a few islands scattered west of Key West. After about 30 miles we passed the uninhabited Marquesas Keys. Then there was nothing but open ocean for the last 37 miles.
After quite some time the first island of the Dry Tortugas came into view: The desolate East Key:
The similar islands of Middle Key and Hospital Key followed. At the same time the larger island of Garden Key came into view thanks in no small part to the massive nineteenth century fort that sits upon it:
As we circled Garden Key to reach the dock, we also passed the largest island of Loggerhead Key:
This island also has the highest elevation at a whopping 10 feet. I can’t imagine being here during a hurricane.
Upon arrival at the Garden Key dock, it’s hard to miss Fort Jefferson. Under construction from 1846 until 1875, the massive brick structure was never really finished and was eventually abandoned by the army. Originally envisioned to combat piracy in the area, the fort later served as a Union prison during the Civil War. While this piece of history was interesting to me, I really came here for the wildlife. Skipping the ranger-led tour of the fort, I headed out to see the exotic wildlife that call the Dry Tortugas home.
Leaving the Yankee Freedom II behind me, I made a beeline for the beach near the north coaling dock ruins. Along the way I got some more views of the impressive Fort Jefferson:
Here the sky was full of gigantic magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens, Fregatidae):
Another seabird was standing on the beach:
And a pelican (Pelecanus sp., Pelecanidae) was trolling the turquoise waters just offshore:
On the beach the sand was littered with coral and shells:
Once in the water I came across sergeant majors (Abudefduf saxatilis, Pomacentridae)…
…yellowtail snappers (Ocyurus chrysurus, Lutjanidae)…
…rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia, Scaridae)…
…and great barracudas (Sphyraena barracuda, Sphyraenidae):
Along the seawall of Fort Jefferson I also saw blue tangs, a lot of trumpetfish, and a southern stingray.
Before I left I wanted to capture the beauty of the sand and water, so I had my wife take this picture of me in front of the land bridge linking Garden Key to the bird sanctuary on Bush Key. If you zoom in you can see the huge number of birds buzzing around in the background:
On the ferry ride back to Key West we were treated to glimpses of green sea turtles, a bottlenose dolphin, and a manta ray.
Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park was an amazing experience. My only regret is that I didn’t spend several days camping there and snorkeling the clear waters teeming with marine life. That prospect definitely gives me a reason to return.