Snorkeling Dry Tortugas National Park is the best available from Key West, and it is pretty darn good! It is actually an entire day of fun, and well worth the trip and expense.
The boat trip was a pleasure and we had very calm seas both directions. The snorkeling waters are a perfect 5 to 12 feet deep and very warm. We spent about two hours straight having fun in the water.
This page will tell you how to find all four snorkel spots, your options for getting to the island and what else you can see around the fort.
The park is located a good 70 miles west of Key West across open ocean, and being this remote it can only be accessed by ferry, seaplane or private boat.
Once you get out there you are actually snorkeling Fort Jefferson. In fact you used to snorkel Fort Jefferson National Monument before the area was expanded to include seven islands and redesignated Dry Tortugas National Park.
There are four distinct snorkeling Dry Tortugas areas that are worth checking out. They are circled in red on this snorkeling map.
The first snorkeling Dry Tortugas area is the easiest to find and explore. You simply follow the outside of the moat wall circled on the map (there is no snorkeling in the moat).
You enter the water from a wonderful white sand beach on the left side of the fort (from the ferry docks). On our map that is at the beginning of the lower yellow arrow, and the snorkel area is circled in red between the yellow arrows alongside the fort.
The best snorkeling in this area is on the moat wall itself. There are a good number of small but healthy corals, both hard and soft, and some sponges. There are also a nice variety of small fish, mostly immature. There were also a wonderful variety of colors of Christmas Tree Worms.
Maybe the best thing about snorkeling along the wall is actually that it is all small and a little spartan. It makes you focus on each small thing as it comes along and you check out smaller fish than you would normally pay attention to in a bigger snorkeling area.
Another nice thing is that if you have family who don't snorkel they can walk along the moat wall right beside you as you swim along.
The second Dry Tortugas snorkeling spot that offers much better snorkeling than the moat, are a series of four to six small patch reefs that are very healthy in shallow water. There are tons of fish around these patch reefs, from large to small. In fact Nicole saw the biggest Tarpon she had ever seen, and it gave her a little startle.
The guides will tell you to swim 50 to 80 yards straight out from the fort to find them. But if you are like us, it is pretty hard to know what 50 to 80 yards is in the water, and it can be kind of daunting to just swim out that far trying to find some small reef structures. But we did find them, and it was well worth it. And once we found them we figured out the best way for you to find them with ease.
Here is the sure way to find the patch reefs. Look at the map on the right. See the yellow arrows. Notice they are lined up perfectly with the two walls of the fort? Start swimming out from either side, keeping yourself in line with one of those walls. Once you get out and start seeing down the line of the other wall (the other yellow arrow), you will be at the reef. Once there, the patch reefs run parallel to the fort wall (you can see the little dark dots in the picture circled in red).
We like to swim along the moat wall until we reach the north wall (top yellow arrow), then we swim out to the patch reefs and follow them back to the south. Then we like to swim back towards the beach and go to the third spot.
The third Dry Tortugas snorkeling area is in the circled section at the bottom of our map. This is an area of pilings that used to support a wharf. Now they are just poles in the water. This is actually a pretty good snorkeling area. You have to be careful not to get hurt on the old rusty metal, but there are tons of fish and nice corals growing on the pilings.
The fourth snorkeling Dry Tortugas spot (the upper right hand circled area on our map) is the actually the same as the third, just in another area. It is another set of old wharf pilings and it is worth checking out if you have time.
Walk over to the beach to the west of the ruins to enter and swim around the point to them.
Snorkeling Dry Tortugas is accessed by boat or sea plane.
There is one ferry that makes this trip called the Yankee Freedom Ferry. We enjoyed our trip with them. You can walk around outside, and it is a heavy, stable boat which is good in case of big seas. Check out more reviews of the Yankee Freedom ferry on TripAdvisor. Sunny Days Fast Cat used to run a ferry to the Dry Tortugas, but they no longer do.
Read more about snorkeling Dry Tortugas on the National Park website.
Along with the fun of snorkeling Dry Tortugas National Park, Fort Jefferson is a place of history for sure. Besides the amazing marine life and birds, the fort is really very interesting to walk around in.
Ponce de Leon first named this area Las Tortugas. Tortugas means turtle (there used to be a ton of them here). But the name dry was added not long afterward because of the lack of fresh water.
The fort itself was built in the 1800s to protect the waters into Florida but quickly became obsolete. Still, at one point there were over 1000 troops stationed on this tiny 16 acre plot of land.
Later the fort became well known as a prison, once holding Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor of John Wilkes Booth. The picture out the window on the right is from Mudd's cell. The fort was abandoned in the late 1800s and was taken up by pirates at times.
There it is. A great day snorkeling Dry Tortugas. Make sure and bring a book if you come by ferry, because it does take a couple of hours each way.
A Compact Snorkeling Camera