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?”
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
Practice before you make the trek. Cannot stress this enough.
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!