Dry Tortugas National Park

AlistairLast Updated On: Gallery

A trip to Key West, FL wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson, built in the 19th century, is located on one of the seven small (in some cases tiny) islands about 70 miles west of Key West. Being so far out in the ocean, in the middle of nowhere, somehow makes it even more spectacular.

Unless you own a yacht or are prepared to charter one, there are only two ways to get there; ferry or seaplane. To me, the choice was obvious – seaplane! Key West Seaplane Adventures provide an excellent service, and although the cost is almost double that of the ferry, there are many reasons why it is worth it.

Here is our seaplane, the magnificent DeHavilland DHC-3 Turbine Otter.

DeHavilland DHC-3 Turbine Otter

The take-off from Key West International Airport’s single runway was smooth, as was the climb out to the cruising altitude 500ft. Conditions were CAVU – Clear Air, Visiblity Unlimited. On the outbound leg of the trip, I highly recommend sitting on the right side of the plane. This gives the best views, and pictures, of Key West during the climb and later of Fort Jefferson during the descent.

View out over Key West

To get the best images during the flight, I recommend removing the lens hood and gently pressing the lens against the window; this will minimize any reflection. Set the focusing mode to continuous or servo as this will ensure you keep a good focus lock on your target. I always use continuous focus for every event unless I am doing a studio shoot. Use an aperture between f8 and f11 and adjust ISO to keep your shutter speed above 1/640s.

Around 20 minutes into the flight, the first land you will see are the Marquesas Keys.

Marquesas Keys

After that, you fly over some other tiny but beautiful keys where rays, sharks, and sea turtles are easy to see from the air.

Florida Keys

And finally, Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson come into view. Altitude at this point is around 320ft.

Dry Tortugas National Park from the air

The landing was smooth, and the pilot quickly reversed the seaplane onto the beach. At this point, the primary advantage of the seaplane becomes clear, the people, or rather the lack of!

When full, the plane carries 10 people including the pilot. After deplaning everyone just scatters and it feels like you are on a desert island all by yourself – amazing.

Although the Fort is the island, from the inside, it feels vast. Every side of the fort is ringed with multiple levels of cannons.

Fort Jefferson

Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, a conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln, once called the islands of Dry Tortuga: “Without exception, the most horrible place the eye of man ever set upon.” He was imprisoned there so I can understand why. It is, however a photographers paradise!

Not your regular smoothbore cannons, these have rifled barrels which spin the projectile for greater accuracy at longer distance.

Rifled Cannons

Imagining a Spanish galleon sailing into firing range!

Imagining a Spanish galleon sailing into firing range

The view looking out over the remains of the jetty.

This picture is also a good example of what happens when a circular polarizing filter is used on a wide-angle 24mm lens – only half of the sky gets polarized.

Dry Tortugas National Park - Fort Jefferson

With this many cannons to feed, the ammunition dumps need to be huge. Almost the same height as the outer structure.

Huge ammunition dumps

Looking down one segment of the hexagonal fort. Each alcove on the left would have housed a cannon, fire team, and ammunition.

Looking through the Fort

The outer section of the jetty, I just love the color of the water.

Fort Jefferson - remains of the jetty

Just as the 9 passengers were getting back on the aircraft, the ferry pulled up at the island. Over 100 people swarmed off it, many wielding (those dreaded) selfie sticks. Definitely a great idea to take the plane and avoid the crowds.

Check out the Dry Tortugas National Park gallery where you can see larger images in the Lightbox.