Dry Tortugas by Seaplane

March 11, 2022

It's a de Havilland Otter. Model number DHC 3. Serial number 370. A seaplane.

No frills here. It's tough. The kind of plane that bush pilots favor in Alaska. And apparently, those that shuttle tourists 68 miles out into the gulf do too.

The seats are for sitting. Nothing more. You'll find an aviation headset hanging from a strap over your shoulder. Just above that, a small package with a life vest. For me, I love it. The simplicity. The rugged. It reminded me of a trip or two where goats were on board. Not this time, as it's just the two of us and seven other bathing suit-clad adventure seekers.

We are just flying, going someplace most don't. As we begin to move, I'm thankful for the windows that bulge out. Thank you to that thoughtful soul who knew we would spend the better part of an hour looking out and down.

After a couple of quick turns, she starts heading down the runway. Before you know it, you are flying. You see that you are flying before you feel that you are flying—Gary, our pilot today, banks gently to the right. We head along the southern coast of Key West on our way to the Dry Tortugas. Gary starts to call out the sights. White street pier, a quarter-mile of concrete jutting south towards Cuba. The southernmost house in the United States. And the southernmost point. And the southernmost this and that. Then Fort Zachary Taylor. This week's cruise ship. Then it's just the ocean off the left and a few islands to our right. Gary's voice is clear. Somehow better than the real-life Gary that greeted us on the airport tarmac.

As we pass over the main ship's channel, a pre-recorded voice cuts in, and for the next 10 minutes, this less authentic but professional voice describes our journey. She tells us about the flight. The little islands. The atolls. A bit of conjecture why they all exist. The marine life and the history of these islands and the southernmost National Park.

Ponce de Leon discovered these islands in 1513 and named them 'La Tortugas' (the turtles). The label 'dry' was added to warn mariners they'll find no fresh water here. The narration continues, and she tells you about the 30 years of construction that created what you are about to visit, Fort Jefferson. The idea was that this tiny spit of land could control the entry to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi. Not sure I still understand that, but it was a different era. It all started with a lighthouse meant to prevent some 500+ wrecks. Over time it would become a massive fort made of 9 million bricks in the middle of nowhere.

I've been glued to the window the entire time. Lots of photos. Lots of videos. The Otter is loud. The headsets have become part of the enjoyment. Gary comes back with the crispness and professionalism that comes with decades in the air.

He has taken this trip hundreds of times, maybe thousands. He is what I remember of Key West (I went to High School here). A man, living his life. Relaxed. Tshirt. Perpetually red-faced from the sun. An ace bandage around his left knee. Probably an old football injury, I tell myself.

"We will be flying low today," he tells us. "Watch for marine life. Sharks, stingrays, and turtles," he continues. He was right on all of those. I've never seen this many turtles. They always dove as we flew over. I'll add Bonefish to the list. Several large schools took me back to searching for those silver ghosts last December.

Gary shares his playlist between calling out turtles, shipwrecks, and recounting Mel Fischer's story of finding $500M of treasure. Tom Petty. Journey. And a trip over the Marquesa's is only complete with Cheeseburger in Paradise.

This is our second trip to the Tortugas. The first time was also by seaplane. December 2014, so says my Instagram. This time we made the morning trip. Last time we made the afternoon trip. The afternoon is what we recommend. You get the beginning of golden hour before you take off to head back to Key West. While the sun is still up for the flight, I'll always prefer those low sun colors.

Unless you have a private boat, the other option is by ferry. Maybe one day we will take the ferry, but I doubt it. It's a full-day adventure. Check-in at 7 AM and get back to the dock in Kew West at 530PM. There may be some benefits to that route. See dolphins close up, maybe? We are a pass on that. True, it's less expensive. $190 for adults vs. the ~$300 for the seaplane. No way the ferry can compete with the views from the plane - even for those that may not love the barebones nature of the Otter..

After 35 minutes, Gary banks around to give us a great view of the fort. The colors are incredible. He is very thoughtful as he describes what we see and knows when to let it speak for itself. Right on, Gary. Well done.

The memories come flooding back when the pontoons skim the water. As a kid, this is one of the ways we would make our way between St. Croix and St. Thomas. Skip, skip, we are down. Easy. Gary takes us past the dock and effortlessly spins the plane around. Rotate the thrust, and he backs us into the beach. We are back.

Everyone works together to unload the plane. Mesh bags of snorkeling gear and small numbered coolers—both provided by the tour operator. I'm the only one carrying a giant camera bag. Go figure.

Gary tells us to be back by 12:50 and points us in the direction of the north beach as it will be the best given the wind direction.

Pro-Tip: When you board, everything will get loaded in the back of the plane. Board with your camera in hand and any extra batteries. Also, remember the color of your fins so you can get them when you land. Also, remember the number or letter on your cooler. All of this will get mixed up in the cargo area, and knowing this will help you when you unload.

The planes back up on Bush Key. We spent an hour walking along this beautiful beach on our last trip. When the wind is calm out of the north, you may even see King conch making their way a few feet off the shore. No luck this time; the area was closed as Sooty Terns were nesting. Cool to see, sad for shell exploring.

We headed right for the fort on our first trip to explore this fantastic structure. This time, being the pros we are, we headed to the north side. Growing up in the keys, I've seen the destruction that has happened to the coral with rising water temps and tourism. The good news is the area around the fort brings you fantastic opportunities to see purple sea fans, mangrove snapper, Sargent majors, and barracuda. Next time I'll bring my goggles or my mask. The kit the plane provides is not great. Good enough if you take a quick jump off the wall. Which, for me, was promptly followed by someone yelling "rule breaker."

The four-foot barracuda who hung out with us was a treat for us. Fascinating to watch the camouflage change. S/he hung out with us for 10 minutes as we just sat in awe of this creation. Thank you for that, friend.

Ultimately, we found special moments just sitting. Find a piece of shade on the south side beach. Or some alone time on the barrier wall. Whatever you do, put the camera down for a few minutes and enjoy this special place.

May you find your moments out there.


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