Day 230 – 4/17/21 Dry Tortugas National Park

We had an awesome day visiting Dry Tortugas National Park.

We woke up early today, for a Saturday, at 6am to get to our ferry to go to Dry Tortugas National Park. Carol and I had everything packed yesterday so it was quick to get everyone ready and out by 6:45 to get our cab.  I called the local cab company and a cab was here at the time we expected.

When we got to the ferry terminal, we walked up to the first floor to check in.  We got there right at 7 and there was a line already.  Everyone had regular back packs or bags, but I had this huge back pack, with the inflatable board hahahaha. 

It got a few eyes on it as people were intrigued with the size of the back pack, maybe thinking we were camping there overnight.  There are actually ten spots for overnight camping there.  We did our check in, I showed our national parks pass, so we could get $30 back from the tickets, and we got our boarding passes.  As we were standing around waiting, the tour guide from the ferry company stopped me and asked if we were staying overnight, due to the backpack.  I said we were not, and that it was an inflatable board.  He then said the captain usually does not allow those, so he had to check.  He called someone over the radio, and came back saying the captain okayed it this one time.  I’m not sure what that was about because we read enough stories of people bringing those in, including on that trip.  But, ok, I was allowed to bring it and told to make sure I checked with a park ranger as soon as we arrived.  That part I was expecting as I had read you need to just get a free permit. 

When it was 7:30 they started loading the boat, and as we went in we picked up the waivers to use their snorkeling equipment, and as we went through the ramp, someone took my big back pack to store at the back of the ferry.  We looked for a spot upstairs, but they were already pretty full, so we went downstairs in the air conditioned room and found a spot where the four of us could sit together.  On our way to the lower level, we picked up our breakfast bag, which had a bagel and cream cheese.  After the boat took off, we could go up to the main area and get the rest of the breakfast, and they had coffee, milk, juices, yogurt and fruit. 

Carol gave the girls some kids Dramamine right away to make sure they didn’t get sick as we didn’t know how the ride would be.  It was a calmer day with 1-3 foot waves, but the boat did get a bit rocky within 45 minutes, rocking sideways, with a lot of wind hitting it from our left.   A good amount of people ended up going outside, and I could tell some were not feeling great.  We got coffee and juice for the girls, and they ate some of their bagels.  The girls were tired, so after eating and playing a little bit, they tried to sleep and were able to sleep some.  After having three cups of coffee, I went outside to enjoy the wind and see if we could spot any sea life. 

Carol joined me later too.  I ended up seeing a fin, likely from a dolphin, and a couple of “flying fish”.  I’m not sure what that fish is called, but they were flying low.  Two and a half hours actually went by quick, and soon we were docking at the island. 

It is pretty cool to see and be at this island in the middle of nowhere.  We grabbed our stuff and headed out of the boat.  I grabbed the paddleboard bag on the way out and found the park ranger to check in with him.  The ranger pretty much did not make a big deal out of this, and basically said I needed to stay out of the swimmers areas, so as long as I did that, and only launched from the dinghy spots, I was fine.  I asked about water conditions and where it was easier, and he pointed me towards a stretch of the island that was closed to foot traffic, but the water part was accessible, and said that was the easiest area since it was protected from the open ocean.  Our plan was to get our stuff, go to the beach and find a spot to leave it all, then hit the 20 minute talk about the park, then get our lunch bags and snorkel gear, then hit the beach again and start enjoying.

We found a spot by the beach right away as not many people had gone there yet.  We chose south beach as it looked like the most amount of beach access and water in front of it.  We put our bags in a spot under some shade, and went to the fort. 

At the fort, or actually right in front of it, the tour guide gave us a quick intro, then walked us all in to a spot under some trees.  We learned that Dry Tortugas was an important fort to protect the flow of ships from the east coast of the US to the middle land, as in Louisianna and Texas, etc.  That exact spot is where the coral reefs end, and is also a protective spot for ships and boats in case of storms, so the US built the fort there to ensure this flow was protected.  Now, there’s this massive fort in a beautiful island in the middle of the ocean, at the edge of the reef, it’s quite amazing.  The island is 70 miles West of Key West.  After the 20 minute talk about the island, we walked around just a bit to take a few pics and moved on to the beach. 

Before heading there, we stopped by the boat to use the restrooms, get our lunch bags, then get snorkel gear.  By time we got back to the beach, lots of people were there, and there were some folks right over our bags.  We got in there and they moved a bit.  I started working on inflating the board, while we all ate, put sun screen, etc.  It’s been taking me about ten minutes to inflate the board, and about 7-10 to put it away.  Bella and I shared a sandwich, finished a lemonade and were ready to go.  I took off with the board and Carol and the girls went snorkeling right there.

When I got to the beach to launch the board, it was nice and mostly clean.  There were some rocks near the shallow, so I sat on the board and paddled away for a bit before standing up.  When I did stand up, I had my feet pretty much in the middle of the board, and it was a bit tough to balance with the constant little waves.  I went left first, towards that little stretch of island, but mainly staying near the boats.  When I got far enough, I sat down again to take some pictures.  I had my phone in a waterproof case, but had it connected to a bungee cord, as I didn’t want to drop it and lose it. 

When I got up again I had my feet maybe a half or a foot behind the center line, and balancing was much easier right there.  I felt much more confident paddling with that stance, so I decided to go towards the beach where Carol and the girls were.  Paddling there was super nice.  The water is very clear and you can see the bottom pretty much the entire time.  I saw a few fish, I think I saw a turtle but that was about it.  I didn’t feel gutsy enough to go as far as where the reef is, I’m sure I could have seen more there.  I went towards the beach and saw Carol and the girls by the old dock ruins.  Later I found out they didn’t see me.  hahahah… 

As I was moving around that area a sea plane was landing and I was kind of on their path, so I had to paddle fast and get out of the way.  From there, I went back towards that stretch of land, and I was moving much faster now.  As I got closer and closer, the bottom was sandier and the water seemed clearer.  There were tons of birds there too, that’s probably why it’s closed off.  Birds would be flying everywhere and coming very close to me, sometimes I felt they were going to hit me. 

I would have stayed around that area for a while, but decided to go back so Carol could give it a try, and I had been at it for an hour.  I turned on the outside walk mode on my watch so I could see if it’d trace the GPS route, and I saw it later that it did, so I have a walk posted on Strava by labeled paddle boarding in Dry Tortugas. 

After I got back, I left the board by the shore and went to get Carol.  They were taking a break from snorkeling and she was ready to go.  The girls wanted to use the restroom and get a cold drink, and also go for their Junior Park Ranger thing.  We got the stuff by the beach kind of organized and went on.  We helped Carol get going, and she was off with the board. 

Then the girls and I went to the Visitor Center so they could get their booklets checked and get sworn in as rangers, and get their buttons.  We got in, and ranger was super nice, checked over their books and sworn them in.  They actually had to raise their right hands and repeat after him.  They were super happy. 

From there, we went to the boat, they used the restroom and I got a beer and some drinks for them.  We went back to the beach, and then I went snorkeling in that area.  The mask did not work too well for me as I did not shave and the beard allowed air in, so it kept flooding.  I snorkeled for about 15-20 minutes anyway, but didn’t see much in that area.  The water was very clear though, but the fish are usually by structures, and I didn’t go far enough.  Carol later told me when they were by the old dock ruins they saw lots of fish, all kinds of fish.  Oh, and they only left because at one point Bella got spooked by a big fish that sneaked up on her.  She started screaming in fear and really freaked out, then they left. 

Carol was back soon after, I think she was out in the water for 30 minutes or so.  I deflated the board and put things away, and we started getting ready to go into the boat.  We wanted to be there a bit before our departure time of 2:45 so we could pick a good spot to sit for our return.  We picked up all our stuff, and went back to the boat.  They had a changing room there but no water, so we ended up not changing before going in the boat.  We returned the snorkel gear, then hosed off the sand from our bodies, dried up a bit, and went in.  I put the board bag in the back of the boat and we headed in and found good spot to sit.  Bella went to get changed but the rest of us just had our shirts on and towels.  We got some drinks, snacked on left over sandwiches and chips, and soon the boat was off.  We took some more pictures from the boat, saw the sea plane landing and their props making the birds from the island all fly at the same time, going everywhere, saw lots of fish around the ferry, etc.  The ferry left promptly at 2:45.  For the return the girls were tired, and while Carol and I had some beers, they both fell asleep on us.  The ride back was very enjoyable, the ocean was even calmer than before, we had good seats in the middle of the boat, we had beer and the weather was awesome outside.  It was a great day.  

We got back to shore at 5:30 and I called the cab company, but they said it’d be 20 minutes or more, and didn’t even take my name. 

That didn’t sound very promising so I pulled up Uber and got a driver there within 4 minutes.  Uber was more expensive than the cab, but it was much more convenient.  Plus, the driver was very cool, he was from Haiti, and gave us a great dinner recommendation.  After we got back, everyone showered, I put things away, washed the board, etc then we headed to Hog Fish for dinner.  Carol was not feeling like going, but we went anyway, and she loved it.  They had live music and the two guys were really good.  The food was very good as well. 

After dinner, we drove around looking for Diesel to fill up the truck, then we got back home and all went to bed.  It was a long day.

We had an awesome day at Dry Tortugas National Park, paddling, snorkeling and enjoying the beach.

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