Getting to Dry Tortugas by Seaplane: Everything You Need to Know from First-Hand Experience

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Have you been thinking of visiting the stunning Dry Tortugas National Park? With its historical fort structures, crystal-clear waters, and pristine beaches, it’s a remote paradise for nature lovers and history enthusiasts. However, getting there can be a challenge! Fear not! There is a thrilling and convenient way to reach this remote island paradise – get to Dry Tortugas by seaplane.

Forget about long boat rides or crowded ferries. A seaplane offers a unique and exhilarating experience, providing a bird’s-eye view of the breathtaking blue waters and the arrival to the fort below.

We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about getting to Dry Tortugas by seaplane, from the booking options to what to expect during the flight.

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler looking for a new adventure, this guide will provide you with all the information you need to make your trip to Dry Tortugas by seaplane an unforgettable experience.

A view of the Key West Shoreline and turquoise blue-green waters as you depart Key West traveling to Dry Tortugas by seaplane.
The Key West shoreline looks beautiful from the Dry Tortugas Seaplane.

How Long to Spend at Dry Tortugas

The first thing you will need to decide when planning your trip to Dry Tortugas by seaplane is how long you’re going to spend there exploring!

There are two options, where you can spend either a half or a full day trip on Dry Tortugas

Half-Day Tour of Dry Tortugas by Seaplane

Want to experience the awesomeness of Dry Tortugas National Park, but don’t want to spend days on a remote deserted island? The perfect plan for you is the Half Day Dry Tortugas seaplane excursion!

Picture this: You’ll be soaring just above the stunning blue waters and the picturesque little islands, departing from Key West. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled, scanning the surface for sharks, dolphins, and sea turtles as you pass over clear blue waters. Once you spot one turtle, you’ll spot hundreds!

The best part? There are multiple departure times throughout the day, so it’s super convenient for you.

The flight to Dry Tortugas takes around 40 minutes each way. You’ll have plenty of time to kick back, relax, and soak in those amazing views. Your pilot will also point out things along the way. We circled back a couple of times so everyone on the plane had a chance to spot a small pod of dolphins on our trip out.

After landing on the beach, you’ll get approximately two and half hours of island time at Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas.

If you plan to take the first or the last trips of the day, it’s almost like having your private island adventure! You’ll really only be there with campers and those who arrive on the seaplanes.

Be sure to take the time to explore Fort Jefferson. History buffs will love this part! Wander through the fort to the cell that once held the infamous Dr. Samuel Mudd, known for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth. Take the stairs to the top level of the fort for some amazing views!

This trip is so popular that it’s best to make your online reservations well in advance. Remember, there’s a park entrance fee and a reservation fee, but the seaplane ticket covers bottled water and all the snorkeling gear you need.

For those who want to enjoy exploring the fort and a little snorkeling, the half-day seaplane adventure to Dry Tortugas provides plenty of time to check out the highlights.

A white amphibious float plane sits on the tarmac at Key West International Airport.
You’ll board the amphibious seaplane on land at the airport in Key West, but you don’t have to go through the traditional airport security. Seaplane check-in is in a separate building!

Full-Day Tour of Dry Tortugas by Seaplane

If you’re all about diving headfirst into the beauty and history of Dry Tortugas National Park, then you’ll want to plan to spend a full day at Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s an epic, unforgettable trip that lasts for nearly 8 hours, with over 6 1/2 hours of pure island time at Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas.

A typical full-day seaplane trip to Dry Tortugas goes like this: kick things off in the morning, taking off on a seaplane adventure from Key West that lasts about 40 minutes.

The view from up there is out of this world! You’ll start by flying over the super stunning Key West coastline, with jaw-dropping sights of the surrounding islands and the mind-blowing coral atoll. Your pilot will tell stories and point out things to see along the way.

Once you land, you’ll have all the time in the world to explore the shallow waters and the coolest snorkel spots in the park. And guess what? Snorkel gear is included, if you didn’t bring your own!

As you depart from the plane, you can ask where the best snorkel spots are, or plan to check in the park office for the most up-to-date visibility report and water conditions. There is plenty of shallow water, but we didn’t have the best visibility or the calmest waters for snorkeling during our visit. We didn’t see much marine life but didn’t spend a ton of time in the water.

We’re not experienced or knowledgeable bird watchers, but we found watching and photographing the many different species flying and circling around to be quite fun.

With the full-day tour, you’ll get even more time to visit Fort Jefferson National Park and immerse yourself in its intriguing past. Do you know about Dr. Samuel Mudd? If not, you can learn more during your Dry Tortugas visit.

Birding is also extremely popular, and we couldn’t believe all the different birds flying around out across the beaches. Bring your binoculars or your telephoto lens. Observing those flying creatures is a great way to take a break from all the snorkeling and swimming!

These seaplane trips are super popular, especially in the high visitation seasons. If you want to make sure you’re in on the action, make your online reservations well in advance. 

An aerial view when approaching the Dry Tortugas by seaplane
Approaching Dry Tortugas by Seaplane provides fantastic views.

Getting to Dry Tortugas by Seaplane: Things to Know

Taking a seaplane adventure to Dry Tortugas National Park promises an unforgettable experience. Departing from a separate hangar at the Key West airport, this scenic 40-minute flight offers breathtaking views.

Plan to arrive to check in at the seaplane office more than 30 minutes ahead of time. Upon check-in, you’ll get snorkel equipment, a cooler with ice and drinks, and pay park entrance fees. 

You’ll also sign waivers and meet your pilot. Restrooms are available and the waiting room has air conditioning, providing a comfortable spot to wait for your departure.

You may get your feet a little wet when you get off the plane. It pulls right up to park on the beach!

Seaplane Advantages:

Taking a seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park offers several advantages for visitors. It is hands down the fastest way to and from the park, allowing you to maximize your time exploring.

The seaplane provides a scenic flight over the beautiful waters surrounding the Florida Keys, offering incredible views of the blue water and landscapes below.

Taking a seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park offers convenience and flexibility. Travelers can easily make online reservations, saving time and effort. The seaplane ticket also includes complimentary snorkel gear, plus soft drinks and bottled water, iced in a small cooler for your personal group.

Bird’s Eye Views

From this elevated viewpoint aboard the seaplane, you’ll witness the stunning bird’s eye view of the ocean below on the way out to the fort.

As you travel out to Dry Tortugas, your pilot will teach you how to scan the waters for creatures like dolphins, stingrays, sharks, and sea turtles. Once you spot a sea turtle and know what to look for, you’ll likely spot dozens of them in the short trip.

The bird’s eye views both of Key West and of Fort Jefferson are also fantastic. You’ll be able to appreciate just how beautiful everything is from a different perspective. And as an added bonus, you can also spot two shipwrecks on the route.

The best part about the design of these particular seaplanes is that everyone on board gets a window seat! The seats are arranged single file along each side of the plane so you won’t have to worry about leaning over someone else to get those beautiful bird’s eye views, either.

Plan Around Crowds

To make the most of your visit to Dry Tortugas National Park by seaplane, you can certainly plan around the crowds that arrive each day on the ferry. By strategically selecting your seaplane trip, you can ensure a more intimate and secluded experience on the island.

Booking the 8 am or 2 pm seaplane trip is a smart choice for those seeking a quieter visit. These departure times allow you to have the island almost entirely to yourself, with only a few others from the seaplanes and those campers staying on the island.

This means fewer people on the beaches, more space while snorkeling, and the opportunity to fully enjoy the beauty of the park without the crowds.

Because the flight is so much quicker than the ferry ride, you’ll enjoy most of your time on the island either before the ferry arrives or after departing for the day.

A white float plane with blue and orange stripes is parked on a sandy beach in bright blue water at Dry Tortugas National Park

Seaplane Disadvantages:

While traveling to Dry Tortugas by seaplane offers numerous advantages, there are also some disadvantages to consider. Some of these may be deal breakers for you. Seaplanes are not for everyone.

Firstly, the cost can be a deterrent for budget-conscious travelers. The seaplane tours can be quite expensive. Additionally, the seaplane has limited space and weight restrictions, which means you can only bring a limited amount of baggage, including snorkel gear.

The half-day tour may be too short for some travelers. Four hours may not provide enough time for exploring and experiencing the park fully, especially considering the travel time to and from Key West.

On the other hand, the full-day tour, lasting seven or more hours, may be too long for some to spend out in the sun. You can’t stay overnight at one of the campsites when arriving by seaplane, either. 

It’s also worth noting that the seaplane departure times are fixed, making it difficult to tailor your visit according to your own schedule. The seaplane flights are very subject to weather conditions, and cancellations due to inclement weather can occur. This can lead to disappointment and additional costs if you need to reschedule or cancel your trip.

It’s Pricey!

When planning a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park by seaplane, it’s important to consider the cost of the journey and any additional expenses. While the experience is undeniably thrilling, it can be quite pricey.

The seaplane cost itself can range from around $300 to $400 or more per person for a round-trip flight from Key West.

There are also additional expenses to keep in mind. Firstly, there’s the park entrance fee, which is currently $15 per person. Additionally, you’ll have to get to Key West to catch the seaplane, whether that be by flying or driving. 

You’ll also most likely want to spend the night in Key West after exploring Dry Tortugas. There are plenty of unique places to stay in Key West, but they’re not cheap!

Caution: Motion Sickness

While a seaplane adventure to Dry Tortugas National Park is an exciting adventure, beware that it does not totally eliminate the risk of motion sickness. Despite the seaplane being a smoother, faster, and more comfortable mode of transportation compared to the ferry, some passengers may still experience discomfort during the flight.

I know I did on the way out to Dry Tortugas. Because I was scanning the water for sea life, I definitely experienced motion sickness and spent 10-15 minutes in the second half of the flight taking deep breaths with my eyes closed!

To alleviate any potential motion sickness, there are a few tips you can follow. Firstly, consider taking Dramamine, meclizine, or any other motion sickness medication before your seaplane flight. This can help prevent or minimize the symptoms of nausea and dizziness.

I took a dose before we left for the return flight to Key West, and I was able to enjoy looking out the window much more.

Staying hydrated is also important. Drink plenty of water before and during the flight to keep your body well-hydrated, which can help reduce the likelihood of feeling sick.

Also, wearing cool and comfortable clothing can make a difference. Opt for loose-fitting garments that allow for easy movement. Avoid tight or restrictive clothing that could exacerbate any feelings of discomfort.

The flight is only around 40 minutes long, and our experience was quite smooth. Scanning the water is what got me! If you are prone to motion sickness, look for sea life in shorter stints.

The Yankee Freedom III ferry is docked near the beach at Dry Tortugas National Park
The ferry to Dry Tortugas takes 175 passengers each day, making it more crowded than the seaplanes.

Taking the Ferry to Dry Tortugas 

Getting to the Dry Tortugas by ferry is the most popular option for those exploring this stunning but remote national park. The Yankee Freedom Ferry offers a convenient transportation experience on a full-day adventure.

The cost of the ferry ticket includes not only the transportation to and from Dry Tortugas but also a host of amenities and services. 

The ferry ride takes approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, depending on weather conditions. The check-in time at the ferry terminal is one hour before departure, so plan to arrive early to ensure a smooth boarding process.

Once onboard the Yankee Freedom, you can enjoy a range of amenities. The ticket price includes breakfast and lunch, snorkel gear, and a guided tour of Fort Jefferson, providing a comprehensive experience of the Dry Tortugas.

The water can be rough, making this a difficult trip for those who experience motion sickness or sea sickness. Take necessary precautions, or it will be a long day trip with approximately 5 hours spent round-trip on the ferry.

A white bird sits in a green tree with 3 other birds flying in the background over blue green water at Dry Tortugas National Park.
Even though we’re not bird watchers, we have to admit the birds at Dry Tortugas were cool.

Getting to Dry Tortugas By Private Charter or Your Own Boat

Using a private charter to get to Dry Tortugas offers the ultimate experience in flexibility and convenience, but with the price tag to go along.

You can customize your trip to suit your preferences and have the entire boat to enjoy with your group. This allows for a more intimate experience and the ability to explore at your own pace.

However, the high cost of a private charter is a significant drawback. Prices can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per day, depending on the size and amenities of the boat.

Using your own boat also provides flexibility, but there are a few things to consider.

First, you will need to obtain a permit from the National Park Service, which includes a fee and requires advanced planning. Navigating the waters around the park can be challenging due to its remote location and shallow depths.

Additionally, you will be responsible for your own fuel, supplies, and the safety of your vessel. With Dry Tortugas’ location 70 miles from Key West, this is not a trip to make for the inexperienced.

Sandy atolls make for beautiful beaches at Dry Tortugas National Park.

Seaplane vs. the Ferry vs. Private Charter: Which One is Better?

Dry Tortugas is not the easiest national park to get to. Weather, ticket limitations, and other concerns can intimidate some people. But fear not!

When it comes to traveling to the Dry Tortugas, there are a few options to choose from – the seaplane, the ferry, or a private charter. Each option offers its own unique experience, but there are some key differences to consider.

If you’ve made it this far, you know all about our experience on the seaplane! The seaplane option, however, is not for everyone.

Firstly, let’s talk about cost. The seaplane is the most expensive option, with round-trip tickets costing hundreds of dollars per person. On the other hand, the ferry is the most budget-friendly option (used lightly), with tickets starting at $200 per adult.

Private charters, while offering the flexibility to customize your trip, can be even more costly than the seaplane excursion.

One of the biggest advantages is the incredible flight experience. Flying in the seaplane provides breathtaking views of the crystal blue waters and the stunning coral atoll as you approach the Dry Tortugas.

Another advantage is that seaplane passengers obviously arrive in smaller groups when compared to the ferry. Timing your arrival, you’ll have the chance to explore the fort and the beaches when they’re less crowded.

Additionally, taking the seaplane allows you to have a solid chunk of time in Key West once you return, giving you plenty of time to explore and enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of the southernmost point of the US.

While the seaplane may be the more expensive option when compared to the ferry, it certainly offers some unique advantages that make it worth the price for those whose budget allows it. Whether you choose the seaplane, the ferry, or a private charter, a trip to the Dry Tortugas is one you won’t forget.

We love taking seaplane adventures. The anticipation of arriving at these stunning locations from above with those views never gets old. Flying via seaplane to Isle Royale for a backpacking adventure was just as fantastic as this flight to Dry Tortugas.

Experiencing the beauty and adventure of Dry Tortugas by seaplane is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be missed. From the breathtaking views to the unique history and wildlife, taking a day trip to Dry Tortugas by seaplane is an experience you won’t forget.