Kayaking the Dry Tortugas

In Adventure, Destinations by Sally10 Comments

Making the 3 mile crossing from Garden Key to Loggerhead Key. Note the prominent lighthouse in the background.

Making the 3 mile crossing from Garden Key to Loggerhead Key. Note the prominent lighthouse in the background.

After unofficially ending our first trip to the Dry Tortugas, Nikita and I somberly made our way to the Yankee Freedom ferry after loading all of our stuff onto the dock. We were ready to get some sandwiches and ice cold sodas after days of camping food and well, fuck- it had air conditioning.

We chilled while munching on conspicuously large, self-prepared-from-communal-supplies sandwiches, when a member of the staff came up to tell us we would have to put some of that lettuce and tomato back.

Kidding. We chatted about our trip and how incredibly hooked we were on the whole experience.

“You guys brought a kayak, right?”

“No?”

“Oh man. You have to come with a kayak.”

He then proceeded to make us feel as if we had actually missed out on what just moments before, felt like the trip of a lifetime. With a kayak we could go to this even better island 3 miles from the fort and see better fish. We could even try and catch some fish because there are so many of them it was so easy. But the coolest thing is finding the remains of two shipwrecks by kayak, and then snorkeling them from above.

Fast forward one year a few months and we were back! With a kayak!

Here’s how you do all of those things with a kayak that we missed out on the first time:

Getting to Loggerhead Key

Just a 3 mile crossing over deep water and strong ocean currents. No biggie!

Just a 3 mile crossing over deep water and strong ocean currents.

Depending on the conditions, this can be a real challenge. Be advised that people have died making this crossing, some not that long ago. You need to check in with the Park Service before you leave, and they should be able to tell you more about the conditions for that day. Do not go if the conditions aren’t advised for small watercraft.

Now that that’s out of the way. Kayaking the 3 miles to Loggerhead Key was one of the most badass things I’ve ever done, and I would definitely do it again.

To get to the island, you need to leave in the morning. Bring plenty of drinking water, food for the day and sunscreen with you. Sun poisoning and dehydration has been blamed for some rescue-requiring incidents out there.

Double check to make sure you have your kayaking safety equipment, that should come with your rental.

Getting to Loggerhead is straightforward. There is a prominent lighthouse on the island, and once you haul your kayak off the beach and get into the water, it’s a straight shot from Garden Key.

Because of currents, getting to Loggerhead takes about half as long as going back. It took us about 45 minutes.

You can pull up directly on the forward-facing beach, or paddle around to the other side. We took a break and stopped at the first, getting out to explore the island, and later bringing the kayak around to the other side of the island, for use in trying to find one of the shipwrecks.

Made it! Time for a photo-op.

Made it! Time for a photo-op.

Take time to explore the island before you get in the water. It’s extremely picturesque and has more foliage and whatnot to look at than Garden Key. Do this with shoes! There are tons of burrs, waiting to get stuck to the soles of your feet. Not fun.

You can follow the path ("A path! A path!") from the dock to each of the buildings on the island. Taking a peek at the lighthouse as you make your way to the shore on the other side.

You can follow the path (“A path! A path!”) from the dock to each of the buildings on the island. Taking a peek at the lighthouse as you make your way to the shore on the other side.

If you follow the path across from the dock when you first hit the island, it will take you straight back to the other side. Walk past the quarters on the island and you’ll hit up a storage shed. There’s a dock on the other side where you can hang out and take in the view. You can also catch some much-needed shade underneath.

Loggerhead Key lighthouse.

Loggerhead Key lighthouse and some much-needed shade underneath the dock attached to the shed.

Once you’re ready, you can explore the main reef on the island. The reefs are only on the western side of Loggerhead Key, the opposite side of the channel.

On the beach, you’ll notice a lot of rocks and ruins. Avoid this getting in and walk up the beach to your left. You can get in where the rocks start to thin out.

The rocky shoreline on the west side beach of Loggerhead Key.

The rocky shoreline on the west side beach of Loggerhead Key.

This is a good area to ease into the snorkeling. Plenty of small fish hang out here, because there is a rocky barrier that creates a nice safe haven from larger fish on the other side. You can make your way through here, swimming with the beach to your left, until the rocky wall to your right fades out.

Start from the shore with the shed behind you, and enter the water toward your left. You'll see the rocky barrier wall once you start to swim out.

Start from the shore with the shed behind you, and enter the water toward your left. You’ll see the rocky barrier wall once you start to swim out.

Larger reefs are along this outer wall. If you snorkel this side you should get some variety, and if you keep swimming until you are back in front of the storage shed, you’ll find large ruins with plenty of fish. Keep heading in that direction and the reef will continue, with lots of clusters of coral, colorful reef fish and my favorite- christmas tree worms!

Kayak Fishing

If you fish, you’ll need bait. It will mostly likely be frozen, and need to stay that way until you’re ready to use it.

Maybe use your bait on your first day out there, so it doesn’t sit in your cooler with the rest of your food. When our bait started to melt, it did not smell like normal, old fishy fish. Instead it had an unusual, but still bad, smell that we couldn’t detect in some of the food until it was unsalvageable.

Fishing turned out to be a bust, productively speaking, and a bit of a traumatic experience for Nikita. I did all of the line casting and throwing little fish back while we were out there, half-assing it as I went. We didn’t catch anything, and just after our line was snapped by something big and our second to last hook gone with it, Nikita “accidentally” knocked the rest of the bait box into the water. Sending our precious, cold dead squid into the dark waters of the Gulf below. “Oh nooo the bait…”

I’m kind of glad we didn’t catch anything big enough to eat. Then we would have had to take it back and kill it. Not sure either of us had the guts for that.

To fish in Florida, you’ll need a fishing license. We got a 3 day, non-resident license for $17. It was simple, straightforward and you can do it online here.

Exploring Shipwrecks

Hate to disappoint, but we didn’t succeed in finding either of them. Nikita forgot to load his offline GPS maps application on his new phone before we left (I curse him to this day), and we couldn’t figure out how to use the GPS on our emergency radio.

We spent about 2 hours one day paddling around the general area of one of the wrecks to the southeast of the island, getting no where and paddling with circles. Oh, and getting sunburned.

Do not attempt this without precise coordinates and a way to navigate to them. It’s not particularly dangerous to be out there- it’s not very far from shore- but every freaking patch of seaweed 15 feet away looks like a potential sunken ship like a mirage of a shimmering oasis pool in the desert.

We did not find either shipwreck, even though we were certain we had to be close.

So to actually find the shipwrecks, you’ll need exact coordinates. You can talk to the Park Ranger in charge to get them.

On the whole, kayaking in the Dry Tortugas National Park, we were 1 for 3 in our planned list of activities. This didn’t make the trip or the kayaking any less enjoyable- and I think the main attraction is definitely Loggerhead Key anyway.

Getting a Kayak

$200 gets you a two-person kayak, cooler and all the necessary safety gear for the 3 day maximum stay for ferry-goers. Worth it.

$200 gets you a two-person kayak, cooler and all the necessary safety gear for the 3 day maximum stay for ferry-goers. Worth it.

When we planned to take the Yankee Freedom to the park the second time, we asked the booking staff about getting a kayak. The Yankee Freedom works frequently with a dude named Marty, who rents out kayaks to campers.

Marty is a friendly, talkative guy, who knows a lot about the keys, the park itself and kayaking the Dry Tortugas especially. He’s full of great advice if you’ve got questions before you book.

Our two-person sea kayak cost $190 for our three day, three night stay. $210 if you count the $20 fee the Yankee Freedom charges to take it with you on the ferry crossing. Make sure you let the Yankee Freedom know you’ll be bringing a kayak for your trip.

Call Marty at 305-741-1934 to make your reservation. Once you reserve your kayak for your trip, Marty (or a friend of his) will meet you the day before your trip, to give you one of his coolers- if you want, to fill it up with food in Key West before you leave in the morning. A nice touch. Don’t worry about where to keep your kayak for the night, he’ll bring it to marina for you in the morning.

They’ll also go over with you how to use your sea kayak and all of the required safety devices. Pay attention. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. If something does happen to you while you’re out there, better to have your safety equipment and alert people that you need help when you do, instead of waiting for them to figure out that you need to be rescued after 5:30 comes around and you don’t show up.

Safety

Practice before you make the trek. Cannot stress this enough.

 

You can practice in calm shallow waters in the small bay area between Garden Key and Bird Key.

You can practice in calm shallow waters in the small bay area between Garden Key and Bird Key.

We spent some time practicing using the kayak together on our first afternoon. A good practice area is the waters offshore of Bird Key. Bird Key is strictly off limits to all human foot traffic, but the waters just off shore are relatively calm and shallow. You can practice here while watching some of the wildlife on the island. There are a lot of birds. This was also where we saw a not-too-small nurse shark!

Wear your life vest in the water at all times. No, there isn’t a good reason not to. Keep in mind that these are unfamiliar waters to you, and that should something happen and you get swept out of your kayak and unable to get back in, your life vest will keep you afloat, preventing you from expending energy staying above water, or worse, drowning.

Only pull your kayak ashore on designated areas. Do not pull onto rocky areas- you will damage the kayak and kill the reef. Likewise, do not drop anchor where there are reefs. Nuff said.

 

The Dry Tortugas is an amazing trip, made all the more so by having a kayak. While the trip to Loggerhead key is definitely recommended, there’s a lot you can do with just one kayak during your stay. We had one of our best trips to date kayaking the Dry Tortugas!

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Comments

  1. Dave

    Love the blog, can’t wait for y’all to hit the PCT. I was wondering what you knew about camping on loggerhead key?

    1. Nikita

      Hey Dave! Thanks, we’re leaving in 3 days and can’t hardly wait either!
      Unfortunately camping is not allowed on Loggerhead key. It is a remote outpost for marine life researchers and a day trip only attraction for everyone else. These rules are strictly enforced by the park authority, so if you’re not back from your day trip by 5:30 (I think that’s the cut off time), you’ll have search and rescue out looking for you! Don’t worry though, one day is plenty to see the island, and if you leave at sunrise you’ll have plenty of time to see it all and get back before sunset. And if you’re looking for seclusion with your camping, the camping on Garden Key at Fort Jefferson is very private, especially in the afternoon when the Yankee Freedom Ferry leaves.
      Happy camping and enjoy this magical place!

  2. Shawna

    What was your kayaking experience before doing this? Sounds like there are definitely dangers, but given the right water conditions, is this something a beginner or intermediate paddler could do?

    1. Author
      Sally

      Hey Shawna, thanks for commenting!
      I had a decent amount of flat water/ocean kayaking experience in the past, though it was about a decade before I did the Tortugas stretch. Kayaking is pretty intuitive, and as long as you know how to swim I think you’ll be able to figure it out. The most important thing is checking weather conditions before you go out. The ranger station at Fort Jefferson will have the most up to date weather information, and you’ll need to check in with them anyway before you paddle to Loggerhead Key. Your biggest factor is wind. If there is sufficient wind to warrant a ‘small craft advisory’ they won’t let you go, but even lesser winds are no fun to paddle in- especially on your way back!
      So, you’re right, there are definitely dangers kayaking between the two keys. One kayaker drowned several years ago, though it was during February where weather can be volatile. But if you’re in reasonably decent shape, can swim, and properly operate your safety devices on your kayak, I see no harm in going for it. If you’re concerned, I recommend paddling around Garden and Bird key to get your bearings. I did this and saw some great wildlife also!
      Have fun at the Dry Tortugas- it’s one of my favorite places on earth!

  3. Timothy W. Pothier

    I just love this post. And all of these images are breath taking. Actually after seeing these images my old memories awaken, few years back I traveled a beach name Saint Martin Beach, in Bangladesh. That beach have something similar to “The rocky shoreline on the west side beach of Loggerhead Key” image.

    Surely, you guys having great time on that nice beach. Thanks for sharing these awesome images. 🙂

  4. Ron Lindensmith

    We have 3 couples, 50’s & 60’s, all in good shape. Two couples do a lot of diving and all 3 couples do a lot of snorkeling in the Keys. We plan to do 2 nights at the Tortugas in Oct 2017 and we are each taking a 2 person sit on top kayak.
    We’d love to get to Loggerhead Key, but 3 miles for older people might be pushing it a bit. I have a handheld VHF radio with a GPS built in that I’ll take, just in case. We use it with our 11′ Zodiac when we snorkel the Middle Keys which we do 3 to 5 long weekends every year.
    I’d love to share info with you if you are willing.

    1. Author
      Sally

      Hi Ron,

      Your journey sounds fun! I’m jealous! Sounds like you are all experienced in the environment, and you have a “safety first” mindset which is good. The only thing you might want to consider is the winds and currents in the keys in October. If they are strong, it will make the journey in the kayak even tougher. If you’re experienced in a sea kayak, it shouldn’t be particularly dangerous, just a difficult journey.

      What info were you interested in sharing?

      Thanks

  5. Marty

    This is a delightful post ! Very informative ! Makes me remember things I have forgotten
    after going out there for over 30 years !

    1. Author
      Sally

      Hey Marty! Makes us so happy to see you here on our blog. This was one of our most memorable trips ever and your kayak and advice made all the difference 🙂

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