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Seaplane photography in the Dry Tortugas
Seaplane photography in the Dry Tortugas

Juan Ponce de Leon put the Tortugas on the map in 1513 when he and his crew stopped to capture sea turtles for their larders. Hence the name “tortugas,” which means turtles in Spanish. The islands sit at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly between the Florida peninsula and Cuba. After they were folded into the newly formed United States, they became a strategic naval base. Work on Fort Jefferson began in 1846, and U.S. Navy ships filled the deep-water harbor around the islands to protect the shipping lanes that passed through the Gulf on their way to the Mississippi River. At one time, as many as 2,000 soldiers and their families lived on the Tortugas. But the corrosive effects of salt air and the ongoing devastation of hurricanes made the fort costly to maintain, and it grew less essential after the Civil War. The fort was transformed into a national monument in 1935 and a national park in 1992.

Getting There

The Dry Tortugas National Park (305.242.7700; is only accessible by boat and seaplane. Visitors can take their own boat to the islands, though a permit is required. Charter boats can be booked out of Key West, and regular seaplane service—also out of Key West—ferries passengers to the islands for morning, afternoon and day trips. But the most popular way to reach the Dry Tortugas is via the Yankee Ferry (800.634.0939;, a 250-seat ferry boat that runs day trips to the islands. The ferry leaves Key West each morning at 8 a.m. and returns at 5:30 p.m. Lunch and a breakfast snack are provided, along with free snorkeling equipment and a tour of Fort Jefferson.

Explore the Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas are a dream for history buffs and naturalists alike. In addition to its military history, Fort Jefferson also served as a prison that housed one of the most famous criminals in American history: Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, who was tied to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The islands were also a favorite fishing spot for Ernest Hemingway.

For nature enthusiasts, the waters off the Dry Tortugas have some of the best snorkeling in Florida. The depth is shallow—just five to 15 feet—so it’s perfect for seeing vibrant coral and bright tropical fish. The islands are also a major birding destination, and the annual spring migration is on the bucket list for many birders. John Audubon himself famously visited the Tortugas in 1832.

What to Bring

Though the National Park Service runs a small gift shop with plenty of water and snacks, it’s best to bring the essentials. Most importantly, sunscreen and plenty of sun protection. The Dry Tortugas are hot and sunny year-round, and there aren’t many places to find shade. Come prepared, and it will be an unforgettable getaway.

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