Although the Road Ends, the Trip Doesn't

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by RoBoNC on July 28, 2009

Although US Route 1 ends in Key West, Monroe County actually extends seventy miles west of the town in Dry Tortugas. Dry Tortugas is made up of seven islands accessible only by boat or seaplane. The name "Tortugas" is derived from the abundance of sea turtles in the area and "Dry" comes from the fact that there is no freshwater source. The Dry Tortugas was seen as a vital shipping lane and the US built a fort, Fort Jefferson, on one of the islands, Garden Key, to protect shipping on the Mississippi River. Construction lasted thirty years and was never completed as originally planned. Its biggest purpose served as an "Alcatraz" during the Civil War. Union deserters who were captured were sentenced here along with four people that were implicated in Abraham Lincoln’s death. The fort was abandoned in 1876.

Today, it is the Dry Tortugas National Park and because of its location, the most inaccessible National Park, and not to mention, the most expensive to visit. The National Park Service has contracted private companies to provide transportation to the park. It is based on your personal preference which one you choose. The quickest way to the islands but also the most expensive option is the seaplane. The cost was about $225 a person. However, a recent review of the National Park Service’s website has deleted the seaplane service link. The seaplane service may have ended, however a call to the Key West Airport could provide information if this service is still available.

I went with the cheaper option, the boat, if you can call it that. Two companies provide boat service to the Dry Tortugas, the Yankee Freedom and Sunny Days. I went with Sunny Days because it was a little cheaper, $145 as compared to $165. They both offer the same trip itinerary, 41/2 hours at Fort Jefferson, continental breakfast, buffet style lunch and complimentary soft drinks, water, and tea throughout the day. They both offer a guided tour of Fort Jefferson (or you can take a self-guided tour) as well as provide snorkeling gear.

The boats leave the Key West Marina at 8:00am and return no later than 5pm. The trip takes two hours each way. We grabbed breakfast on board the boat and took a nice enjoyable ride to the Dry Tortugas. The whole fort is open to the public except for a small area where the park rangers’ families reside. There is a gift shop at the fort where you can pick up some souvenirs. Because there is no freshwater in the Dry Tortugas, that means there is no bathroom, either. Bathroom facilities are located onboard the boat. Snorkel gear is issued before you leave the docks and you are allowed to swim around the fort or just relax on the beach.

Because of the location of the Dry Tortugas, the islands are sometimes visited by Cubans who are trying to make it to the US. There is even a sign at the Fort that tells visitors that Park Rangers may not always be available if they have an incident of Cubans coming ashore. It takes every Park Ranger and staff member to decontaminate the subjects and watch them as they wait for Immigration authorities. You can see some of the Cuban boats that have come ashore and are now stacked on one side of the island.

An important tip before visiting the Dry Tortugas is that if you get motion sickness, bring Dramamine. They will offer it onboard the boat for a fee. I don’t usually get motion sickness, but on the return trip, it took a long time before we got on a boat again. The Sunny Days operates a Catamaran, which was faster than the Yankee Freedom, but we paid for it on the way back. We went to Dry Tortugas in December, which is still winter in Florida, although it doesn’t feel like it. During the winter, the Gulf of Mexico has really choppy waves. We were told as we boarded to head back, that it was going to be a bumpy ride. The entire ride back we were going airborne off of the waves and crashing hard onto the water. People started getting sick and the staff had to escort some people outside on the boat to get fresh air.

We brought our one year old son with us. I began to notice my wife getting sea sick from the choppy waves. I began to laugh at her since I never get sea sick. Twenty minutes later, I started getting that feeling. It didn’t take long before my son was passed out in my arms. It took everything in my power to keep my son asleep while I came out of seat every time the boat went airborne. A lady next to me told me to look at the horizon to combat the sea sickness and believe it or not, it helped. I looked at that horizon for about two hours and was so relieved when I saw Key West. The most horrific boat ride was over and my son slept through the whole ordeal.

Had I known what the return trip was going to be like, I would have taken the Yankee Freedom and paid the extra $20. Although we beat Yankee Freedom to Fort Jefferson, it was the other way around on the return trip. It was as if the Yankee Freedom cut right through the waves. It was an exciting trip, but one boat ride that I do not want to experience again.
Dry Tortugas National Park
70 Miles West Of Key West
Key West, Florida, 33041

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