Honeymoon in Key West, Part 4: Fort Jefferson

November 20, 2023

Even though I was nervous, I had been waiting for this for a long time.

We had booked ourselves on a seaplane to the Dry Tortugas National Park. Regular readers probably know that I have aviophobia, but that I’ve been getting better through more and more exposure to flight. After all, we had flown down to Key West in the first place. This would be about a 35 minute flight, and relatively low altitude, to a place that I really wanted to visit. Emily also helped keep me together.

Waiting to board the plane. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Waiting to board the plane. – Photo by the author

The short story is: I’m SO glad we did this! It was probably the most incredible trip I’ve ever been on.

Our pilot, Britt, did a quick safety overview with us and helped us get our gear loaded. We brought a bag with a change of clothes and some snorkeling equipment. The company also provided a cooler with some drinks.

I was in the very back of the plane. All set for take-off! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
I was in the very back of the plane. All set for take-off! – Photo by the author

We took off in the de Havilland DHC-3 from Key West International Airport and turned west, flying just off the southern part of Key West. This was the smallest plane I’ve ever flown in, and the first with a turboprop. We all had headsets on that piped in some music and allowed Britt to play tour guide along the way, describing the various outlying keys that we were passing over, as well as a few shipwrecks. He did his best to point out marine life, but I had a hard time spotting it, though I did see some turtles on the way back.

We flew over the wreck of the <i>Arbutus</i>. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
We flew over the wreck of the Arbutus. – Photo by the author
The best part about taking the seaplane is beating the ferry boat! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The best part about taking the seaplane is beating the ferry boat! – Photo by the author

Britt brought us in for an expert landing on the lagoon, and we taxied over the the beach where the seaplanes back in to drop us off. We managed to get a few cool photos there thanks to Britt.

Emily attempts to be as cool as our pilot. - <i>Photo by Captain Britt</i>
Emily attempts to be as cool as our pilot. – Photo by Captain Britt

Once we got on the island, Emily and I toured Fort Jefferson – in my eyes, the main attraction here. This is another Third System fort, and it was never fully completed. It is huge – certainly larger than Fort Delaware. Several of the structures inside – the barracks and officers’ quarters come to mind specifically – are now just foundations, as they were deemed to be too unsafe for the public and torn down years ago. The hot shot furnace has been restored and is in really good shape. That was cool to see.

There were a few large seacoast guns – I saw Parrotts and Rodmans – along the ramparts. The most famous part of the tour is the cell where Dr. Samuel Mudd was held after the Civil War for his role in the Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy. He was pardoned a few years later by President Andrew Johnson, largely because of the medical help he provided to the garrison here during an outbreak of yellow fever in 1867.

The name of these islands – Dry Tortugas – comes from the fact that turtles nest here (tortugas is Spanish for “turtles”) and there is no natural fresh water source. In order to support a large fort and all the people that come with it, the structure was built with subterranean cisterns under the casemates. These were designed to collect rainwater. Unfortunately, as the fort was built ever higher, the weight of the walls caused cracks to form in the cisterns and several were flooded with seawater, making them useless. Ultimately, this is why the fort failed and was never finished. There simply wasn’t enough fresh water for the garrison that the fort required.

These days, the NPS has a small staff that lives on the island and has not only water, but weekly pizza deliveries from the seaplane, and even Starlink Internet.

Starlink comes to the Dry Tortugas. Maybe it isn't so remote after all... - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Starlink comes to the Dry Tortugas. Maybe it isn’t so remote after all… – Photo by the author

As you can imagine, views in every direction from the fort were incredible. It’s a little piece of paradise.

The scenery is <i>gorgeous</i>. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The scenery is gorgeous. – Photo by the author

When we finished in the fort, Emily and I had a bit to eat from the food we brought and walked over to the South Swim Beach and tried out some snorkeling. There was a ton of variety of sea life there, and it was really cool to swim right through huge schools of fish along the fort’s seawall.

The snorkeling beach with the fort in the background. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The snorkeling beach with the fort in the background. – Photo by the author

Before too long, it was time to get back to the seaplane and head back to Key West. I decided to shoot a video while we were taking off.

Taking off from Fort Jefferson. – Video by the author
Goodbye, Fort Jefferson! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Goodbye, Fort Jefferson! – Photo by the author

As we approached Key West, I got the chance to get some cool aerial photos of the island. It was nice to see Fort Zachary Taylor again.

Obviously, we made a safe landing at the airport, and made our way back to the hotel. It was without a doubt one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I’m so grateful that we were able to do it together!

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