At first, I thought it was a shark. I was simultaneously overcome with fear and excitement. Seeing a shark in the wild while snorkeling would be the ultimate jewel on my wildlife checklist!
But a millisecond later, the blurry, giant object on the ocean floor about 20 feet away from me came into focus. It was huge, alright – roughly seven feet long. But it was just a normal fish! Your typical, standard-looking fish, plain gray, with scales, and eyes and fins in the usual places. How could a plain old fish be bigger than a human?
I don’t know if it noticed me or not, but it kept swimming off in the other direction. And then another one came right up behind it. And another. And another! Four human-sized fish, gliding along the bottom of the sea in unison, moving quickly out into deeper waters. In less than two seconds, they were gone.
I would later learn they were tarpon. The Atlantic tarpon (or silver king) can reach lengths in excess of eight feet long. Seeing four of them on my first proper snorkeling experience was a thrill.
Preparing to snorkel at Dry Tortugas
Before this trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, I had done what I would call baby snorkeling – looking at a few tropical fish for a few minutes in Puerto Vallarta. I had trouble with the breathing apparatus and couldn’t keep my head submerged long enough to actually look at anything.
For this trip to Dry Tortugas, I wanted to be prepared, since snorkeling is a big thing here and since all passengers on the Yankee Freedom ferry can borrow snorkel gear for free. So instead of using the basic snorkel that I have trouble with, I brought along a friend’s full-face snorkel mask. This thing is amazing – I’m buying one myself the next time I go underwater!
It covers the whole face so you don’t have to breath through your mouth. You can breath like normal. I borrowed the fins from the Yankee Freedom stand, and I was off.
Even though I tried to prepare for the sun by loading up on sunscreen and wearing a long-sleeve tshirt, I still got some painful burns. My calves and lower back where my shirt was riding up got some brutal sun.
Pro tip: Don’t trust water-resistant sunscreen.
Where to snorkel at Dry Tortugas National Park
There are two primary snorkeling areas at Dry Tortugas, both of which will be noted on your campground map. One is by the dock ruins on North Beach, and the others is by the dock ruins (and moat wall) on South Beach.
The old docks still have their wooden pilings underwater, but those areas have since seen an abundance of sponges, sea anemones, and tropical fish, as well as plenty of barracuda. You can swim between the posts, just be careful. There’s apparently a lot of fire coral here, and you don’t want that touching your skin.
If you swim along the moat wall, you’ll see tons of coral, colorful fish, and perhaps an octopus. For those new to snorkeling like me, this is a fantastic place to try it out since there’s such a vibrant underwater world going on.
If you really want to see bigger sights like the tarpon I encountered, or the occasional nurse shark, head to the North Beach dock. The water out there is a little deeper (no more than 15 feet in most places, though), and the waves are a bit higher, so the swim is a bit rougher.
The NPS strongly encourages people not to snorkel alone, since that’s how accidents happen, so I tried to wait until other snorkelers headed that way before I set out. I saw most of the bigger fish on that corner of the island.
There’s also a “coral heads” spot maybe a quarter-mile offshore that is noted on the map. I did not venture that far, but some friends who did said the coral there is incredible to see up close.
Trying to get footage of the snorkel adventure
I brought along an underwater camera for my snorkeling excursion, but I wasn’t able to mount it properly, so for the first two days, the camera was actually above water level while I was swimming. Meaning that I got no video of the tarpons. Or the fierce-looking barracuda that swam right at my face before darting away at the last minute. Or the many other large fish I encountered.
On my third and final day, I decided to just hold the underwater camera in my hand. This made for much better pics and vids. Unfortunately, I saw very little on this day, as the water wasn’t as clear. So most of my footage is random sponges, sea anemones, and a few small fish. Not even a single barracuda (I had seen a bunch on the first two days.)
Snorkeling at Fort Jefferson was so fun that I’m hooked. I can’t wait for the next snorkel adventure. If you’re new to snorkeling, Dry Tortugas is the perfect place to do it, because when the ferry arrives around noon, a few dozen of the tourists will head straight for the beach to snorkel, so you’ll never be alone.