Find Nemo – Go Snorkeling in Key West
Even though they lie about 67 miles offshore to the west of Key West itself, the Dry Tortugas islands are one of Key West’s outstanding features, and I would say that they are a must-see for anyone who is interested in beautiful waters and historical sites. I will report on the incredible Fort Jefferson in another posting – for now let me tell you about America’s only marine national park, the amazing undersea world just offshore of Garden Key, and one of the best Things to Do in Key West.
The Dry Tortugas is a group of 7 small islands located at the extreme western end of the Keys. All of the islands together only comprise about 143 acres of land area, and several are little more than sand bars that are often covered with water. Except for minimal facilities on Garden Key, the main island and the site of Fort Jefferson, the area is undeveloped and fairly pristine, with the surrounding waters being a marine preserve. Access to the Dry Tortugas is most commonly achieved via the Yankee Freedom, a high-speed ferry, but arrangements can be made to go by seaplane or on a private charter boat if desired.
The Dry Tortugas are well-known as a world-class Snorkeling location, and despite the fact that they are comparatively easy to access, a trip out there can be quite the exotic marine adventure. The great thing about the place is that it is ideal snorkeling water for couples, families, or groups of mixed experience and ability levels. If you pick the right time of year to go – late winter to early spring are the best – the water will be very calm, and a first-timer can launch right off the sandy beach into calm water and be enjoying colorful fish and living coral in shallow water within yards of the beach without a thing to worry about.
Meanwhile, more experienced snorkelers can cross the narrow channel and explore the reef edges opposite the boat landing. Or for a more challenging adventure, experts can work across the shallows about a mile out to Bush Key, rest up there, then dive the open water shoreline and the drop-off beyond. It is also great fun to explore along the walls of the moat and look for historical artifacts. Much of the reef in the area is in good condition, and care should be taken to keep it that way – swim don’t walk, stand in sand, not on coral or grass, and be careful not to brush or bump the corals. The sea life is rich and varied because the area is a marine sanctuary, and if you venture into deeper waters, you will see bigger fish.
Bring plenty of water and some snacks, and a portable beach shade shelter will make you the envy of the sweltering day-trippers. For the real trip of a lifetime, carry a couple of large duffle bags with a light camping set-up, and make arrangements with the ferry captain to ride back to Key West in a couple of days. Be sure to get Park Service permits and reservations for the campground, carry at least two gallons of water per person per day, and plan on having no access to any services beyond the composting toilets provided for campers. It will all be worth it when you switch on your dive lights and explore the reefs by moonlight, and enjoy the magic of this historic spot without the daytime crowds.
And by the way, sorry for the misleading title, but Nemo was a clownfish, and the clownfish is found only in Pacific waters. But you will find plenty of other colorful fish along with an unforgettable adventure when you snorkel the Dry Tortugas.