Monday, December 19, 2016

Seaplane to Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson

The Dry Tortugas are a group of small islands 70 miles west from Key West and visiting them by seaplane is the best thing I've ever done from Key West and one of my highlights of the year. The flight is only at 500 feet so the ocean views are stunning but that's only a warm up for the island itself which is dominated by the huge Fort Jefferson, the largest brick made structure in the Americas. Then there's the beach and snorkeling. I visited Key West for years without visiting the Tortugas and that was a mistake - make sure you include the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson in your itinerary.
View of Fort Jefferson and the snorkeling area in front from the seaplane at the Dry Tortugas
Here are 11 things that are cool about a seaplane trip to the Dry Tortugas:
  • You get to fly in a small, 12 seat seaplane! That's cool!
  • You get amazing aerial views of Key West on take off and landing
  • For most of the flight you're at only 500 feet so you see loads of turtles, dolphins and other marine life in the water
  • You get to see all the lonely keys and sandbars between Key West and the islands - along with informative commentary from pilot
  • You're immersed in the Caribbean colors of the ocean - beautiful blues and greens
  • When you land on water at the Dry Tortugas experience how soft a water landing is
  • If you go on the morning trip you arrive 90 minutes before the ferry so you have the fort and island to yourself, which is awesome and makes a real difference
  • Fort Jefferson, with its 16 million red bricks, is very photogenic
  • As is the vista out to open ocean which includes the Dry Tortugas lighthouse, 157 feet high, a few miles away on Loggerhead Key
  • The snorkelling, very close (like 10 metres) off the island, is easy to do and good. Much better than any snorkelling in Key West
  • The colors, clarity and contrasts are stunning and you end up with some amazing photographs. The photos you see below are the set I'm most proud of across all my tens of thousands of photos of the Florida Keys - see below
FAQs - visiting the Dry Tortugas

Can I get there without flying?
Definitely. Most people go by the daily ferry. It's a pretty big vessel (will seat 200 people), is often full, and goes quite fast. Even so it takes 2.5 to 3 hours (vs 30 mins for the plane). For me it is out of the question because I get sea sick easily and you'd just never get me on the ferry. Note: it is quite often rough or choppy so if you are going for this option bring the sea sick tablets.

So if you get motion sick how was the plane?
I get motion sick, and quite bad. To counter my anxiety about this trip I chose a non windy day and the flight was nice and steady. Really not an issue at all. In any case, they [the seaplane company] say that the wind over the ocean (unlike the roll of the ocean when you are on a boat) is mostly gentle and so the flight in almost all days is no problem. And of course the flight only lasts 30 minutes.

What's the downside of flying?
The cost: it's $295 per person for half day trip which gets you 2.5 hrs on the island before having to leave again. Yes, it's expensive. But, take it from me, do it if you can, because it's worth every cent. A unique experience of a lifetime.

I want to go for the half day. Do I choose morning or afternoon?
I would do morning. You get there 90 minutes before the ferry arrives (and discharges 200 people onto this small island). So for those first 90 minutes it's you, the rangers, the other 11 passengers on the flight and the birds and crabs. Also if you are a photographer, the sun angle is better to take pics of the Fort in the morning.

Who do you fly with?
There is only 1 company: Key West Seaplane Charters. They are great. Google them.

And from where? Is there a 2 hour check in?
From Key West International Airport. The check in is 30 mins before departure, you sit on a wooden bench and listen to video introducing the adventure. Make sure you bring money to buy duty free, in flight snacks and other goodies from the lovely flight attendants during the flight.

How did you spend your 2.5 hours on the island?
Touchdown (on water). Walk off plane onto beach. 10 minute walk along the sand - scare the sand crabs. Pictures in front of the Fort and of the amazing bricks. Into the Fort for 15 minute walk around and on to the top to get the views including of the photogenic lighthouse. Down to the beach. Take loads of pics of the Caribbean views and the outlying islands of the Dry Tortugas group including Dry Tortugas lighthouse, 157 feet high, a few miles away on Loggerhead Key. Beautiful beyond words.

Fast walk from fort to beach - 3 mins. Quick strip into snorkelling gear. 1 hour in the water looking at fish. Amazing. Massive swell in the water - means the ferry has arrived. Final 5 mins in the water. Out. Dry. Quick swig of water and bite of snack on walk back to plane. Pop into ranger station in fort on walk back. Board. Take off.

2.5 hours which seemed like an hour because there is so much to pack in.

Is the water warm?
Yes. Warm and clear. I wore a t-shirt but only to protect from sun in the water, not because it was cold.

Where best to snorkel?
The pilot will direct you to the best place that day. There are a couple of hot spots. The best will vary depending on the wind direction. Another good reason to choose no wind day because under water visibility is better. We went to the South Swim beach, nearest the visitor center. From there it's a 1 minute, 20 meter paddle or walk to the South coaling dock ruins.

The what?
They are the rusting metal "feet" / supports to a pier/jetty/landing area. The landing above them is now not there, just the feet. The fish like them and so collect there. The water is 4 to 7 m deep so you have to float but you are not in open water and very close to the land.

Did you see any fish?
Yes, they say this is one of the best spots to snorkel in entire USA. It was pretty clear. Lots of fish all the time. Different types, very colorful. Fish not shy! Easy to spend an hour in here.

Did you bump into other people in the water?
Well, there were only 11 (plus pilot) on the plane. And only, say, 8 make it into the water but they were round the corner nearer the beach or on the beach relaxing. So we were pretty much by ourselves. Then after an hour we were knocked every which way by the waves from the ferry. I would imagine that after this is would have been quite busy in the water because of the arrival of the 200. But we had to go at this point and get back on the plane.

I love the pictures we took of this day....
The Dry Turtugas seaplane "parked" on the beach at Garden Key
Yankee Freedom which is the name of the Fort Jefferson ferry docked at Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas group

Dry Tortugas seaplane and its skis on the water

From the cabin to the cockpit on trip from Key West to Dry Tortugas. The flight attendants are about to come out and serve cocktails and the meal
On the 70 miles from Key West the plane flies at 500 feet only
Fort Jefferson from the seaplane
Fort Jefferson from land
The plane, the fort and the crab
A small number of Fort Jefferson's 16 million bricks
Fort Jefferson sign
Garden Key lighthouse in Fort Jefferson
Dry Tortugas lighthouse on Loggerhead Key in the distance
South swim beach. You see how busy it is! The snorkel area is to the left
Red brick catwalk to the ocean at Dry Tortugas
On the flight back you realise how much shallow water there is between Key West and the Tortugas
A tiny sandbar spotted on the flight back

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