Dry Tortugas snorkeling was a life-changing experience for me. It was something that lit the fire under my passion for nature and travel, and made me want to stop experiencing life from my computer screen and start experiencing it in the moment. It inspired me to become SCUBA dive certified (and go through all the hoops that came with it) and to travel to see some of the best coral reef habitats in the world.
The reefs at Dry Tortugas National Park are vibrant and full of wildlife, and purportedly some of the best in the Caribbean. Part of this is due to the park being a protected marine reserve, so when you go, you can get a look at how awesome wildlife and habitat conservation can be and just how amazing these natural ecosystems are without human activity messing it up and/or destroying it.
I have always been a nature buff and animal lover. My favorite thing on TV has always been nature programs (and travel shows), and David Attenborough is my hero. I was way more into animals and wildlife than my peers growing up, something I’ve retained into adulthood, despite not becoming a biologist or park ranger (professions I would probably enjoy, quite honestly).
Snorkeling the reefs in the Dry Tortugas brought something out of me that I don’t think Nikita, or I have ever seen in myself before. All the amazing wildlife in those nature shows actually exists- and it was 2 feet away from me! After our first real snorkeling trip, I walked out of the water onto the beach feeling giddy with excitement and potential, and planning for the next morning when I could get up and go again.
I realize not everyone feels the same way about wildlife that I do, but there’s no doubt that you could do a lot worse than snorkeling highly accessible tropical coral reefs on your vacation. Snorkeling the Dry Tortugas is definitely a highlight attraction when visiting the park. Most return visitors come for the reefs, and we even met a veteran who was in the water almost constantly- even at night. Can’t say I wouldn’t try it once but it was impressive!
The Yankee Freedom offers snorkel masks and fins for all passengers wanting to snorkel. We didn’t use these so I can’t say about their quality or ease of use. They’ve been used daily for who-knows how long, so…
We recommend bringing your own equipment. After the ferry leaves, you won’t be able to use their gear.
Snorkel gear can be found at most sporting goods stores, and unless you want to use it a lot, I don’t think its necessary to buy professional dive quality equipment. Just don’t buy cheap stuff from WalMart and you should be fine.
You definitely need:
- A mask
- A snorkel (preferably one that comes with your mask)
- Fins are nice to have sometimes, but totally optional. If you want to explore the reefs further off shore, fins will help you get there faster while expending less energy, but when exploring the awesome reefs in the pilings, they can be difficult to use and are even a hazard to the wildlife.
- Anti-fog spray will help your mask from fogging up underwater. This only works if you have prefit and tested your mask beforehand. Getting in the water and having to make multiple adjustments to your mask will expose the inside to moisture and render any spray useless.
Where to go Snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas National Park
The two best places to snorkel are the pilings off of the North and South beaches.
Snorkeling the Dry Tortugas – South Beach and the coaling dock ruins
South beach is the beach located behind the campsites. It’s my favorite of the two beaches, but that might be because I’ve spent more time on it.
It’s an easy swim, or walk really, from South beach to the pilings on the southern coaling dock ruins. From the beach, you simply head left and follow the wall of the helipad, turn the corner and the pilings will be on your right. The area between the outer wall of the helipad and the pilings is very shallow, and full of lots of smaller fish, who will usually become your entourage as you plod along and snorkel. So cute!
Things get a little more interesting as you begin to explore the pilings. Be careful as you do- there is plenty of fire coral, and you’ll need to swim slowly and be watchful that you don’t brush up against any of it. Within the pilings there are larger and a more diverse variety of fish. The fish on the south side (South Side represent!) are smaller and I feel, a bit more reclusive, but if you swim calmly and hang out in the area for a while, they may come out to take a closer look.
Along the bottom are more ruins of the dock, and you can sometimes spot a porcupine fish hiding out. They’re shy little fish, with a strangely expressive face. Almost like Steve Buscemi but without teeth…
Do not go beyond the pilings. Because it’s so narrow, it’s unlikely that you will, but beyond the pilings is boat traffic and a strictly no swimming zone. There’s nothing back there but a deep drop off anyway.
I like snorkeling this area because it’s easy to access and easier to swim. Perfect if you’re just starting out snorkeling at the park.
Snorkeling the Dry Tortugas – North Beach and the coaling dock ruins
The North beach is on the opposite side of the island from the campsite. Once you’re at the beach, you’ll enter the water and head right, going away from the fort and the moat wall.
The journey to the pilings includes crossing much deeper water than on South Beach. If you’re bringing fins, this will be a good time to use them.
Just like on the South dock ruins, follow the wall of the loading dock on your right. Turn the corner to your right and the pilings will be in front of you.
You’ll most likely see fish on your way there. There are a few clusters of brain coral with some fish that are worth looking at. Some of the fish can be quite large due to the deeper water, but don’t be intimidated and keep heading toward the pilings.
Once you’re in the pilings, you’ll see plenty of fish among the coral. Some of the most memorable ones we’ve seen were a family of parrotfish and a large Moray Eel, who we’ve heard lives there permanently.
Overall- it’s a party at the North Beach. The wildlife I’ve seen has been more diverse and it’s where the much larger fish are on the island. (Pretty crazy getting so close to fish so big!) I recommend going during different times of day to see the change in wildlife.
If you’re camping, definitely make an effort to get up a little earlier and get some snorkeling in before the Yankee Freedom arrives. You’ll have the area to yourself and there are usually more wildlife out before the sun gets too hot.
For Your Safety
Should you be worried about all those wild fish? Not really. Most of the wildlife at the park are habituated to humans, and beyond that, snorkeling humans neither pose a threat nor are a source of food, and the fish are either unimpressed by snorkelers or hiding from them. Aside from that, you obviously should not do anything stupid like try to touch or harass the wildlife. Doing so can get you bitten or stung. The fish are harmless, but not if you harm them first. Leave them alone and be calm, and you’ll be amazed at what you see.
Water safety. Because we’re so buoyant in salt water, drowning isn’t that much of an issue around the beaches. Add a snorkel mask and you’ve increased your air capacity and made yourself even more buoyant. Snorkeling with just a mask is enough to keep you afloat- but if you’re worried or are unsure of your swimming abilities, be sure to practice where the water is shallow, bring a flotation device like a vest, and always go with a buddy. The buddy system holds true for everyone.
And of course, sharks. The Dry Tortugas is a marine reserve, and protects a key breeding ground for the nurse shark. Yes- a shark, but a completely harmless bottom feeder. We saw one while kayaking the waters around Bird Key- it was no small shark, but swam away immediately once we approached. I talked to the park ranger and staff and there have been no recorded incidences of shark attacks in the park ever. Aside from the nurse shark, I can’t remember seeing any around the reef. Not even babies. Suffice it say, sharks shouldn’t be within your realm of worry while you snorkel.
Prepare for sun exposure. The water feels wonderfully cool under the hot sun, but you’re still getting exposure. Unless you’re a Floridian, probably much more than you’re used to. Be sure to lather up your face, ears, neck, back and the backs or your arms and legs 30 minutes before going out. The tropical sun is merciless, and it really doesn’t take long to get a nasty sunburn without any kind of protection out there. My second time going I bought a rash guard for surfing with SPF 55+ and it provided complete protection while I was out, and I didn’t have to use all that sunscreen as an added bonus. I highly recommend purchasing a rash guard if you burn easily.
For the Reef’s Safety
Do not touch the reefs. I repeat, do not touch the reefs. Coral is extremely delicate, and despite taking hundreds of years to build up, can be detached and killed in an instant. Sometimes it may seem awkward to navigate the reef areas with your fins. If you’d like to take a closer look at things, you can usually swim pretty well with your fins off, without sacrificing much of the experience.
It is everyone’s responsibility to be a good steward of our humankind, and experience the reef in a way that is safe for its permanent residences. Remember, this habitat isn’t just pretty to look at, it is totally alive and plays an important part in more than one ecosystem.
If you have children, be sure to explain to them that touching the coral will kill it. And always accompany them when snorkeling.
Dry Tortugas snorkeling is a great, and hopefully, life-changing experience. Highly recommended. If you want more, you can read about the awesome, but slightly less accessible snorkeling further away on Loggerhead Key.