Flying To Dry Tortugas


Dry Tortugas from our seaplane

Big dreams require big risks. Sometimes the greatest risk is overcoming your own fears. That’s the way it is with me and flying in small planes. In a recent post, I shared my excitement about escaping to Key West a few weeks ago for a romantic getaway. My husband and I had waited a long time for this vacation, and we were ready for adventure.

Only excitement, no fear!

When we arrived at our favorite bed & breakfast, the topic of Dry Tortugas came up as it has the past three visits. This national estuary is a bit off the beaten path. Seventy miles west of Key West, to be exact. I get seasick, so the two-and-a-half hour ride each way on a catamaran or ferry didn’t appeal to me. Traveling there by seaplane had always been out of the question, too. This time, I surprised us both when I agreed to fly.

What changed my mind? I was tired of fear holding me back. One of my favorite Meryl Streep romantic comedies is the Al Brooks movie, Defending Your Life. I kept thinking about how Al Brooks’ character dies to find himself in Judgment City. The movie’s premise asks, “Did you live with courage?” If you haven’t seen this 1991 film, it’s worth a look. Be forewarned though, the trailer has a spoiler in the last twenty seconds:

We booked the excursion, payment in full. I prayed I wouldn’t chicken out like I had at the Las Vegas Stratosphere when I was unable to overcome my fear of heights and go on its thrill rides. I promised myself I would “just do it,” like the old Nike ad.

Two days later, the conditions were perfect for flying. I’ll admit, I woke about three that morning in a cold sweat, worrying about all the horrible things that could happen on our trip and having flashbacks to the flick, Six Days, Seven Nights. Remember this movie? It features my all-time favorite actor, Harrison Ford. (Okay, so maybe my nightmare wasn’t all that bad if Harrison was in it.)

By the time the sun rose, however, I was calm and mentally prepared for the day ahead. It helped that everyone at the airport inspired confidence. (Click on photo of me in the plane for information about Key West Seaplane Charters.) I beamed with excitement as we buckled in and outfitted ourselves with headsets.

A Shipwreck off Key West

The view from our seaplane was incredible. The photos only hint at the beauty that surrounded us. The blues were bluer than I’d ever seen. We flew low enough that we could observe sea turtles, sharks, and sting rays glide through the tropical waters. Via our headsets, the pilot told us about the sunken ships whose outlines were visible from our vantage point, the tiny islands dotting the ocean, various channels and other water features we viewed during the thirty-five minute flight. When he wasn’t talking, music themed to our flight streamed through our headsets. It was surreal, and I felt like I was in a movie–one with a happily-ever-after.

Landing on water was smooth and gentle, unlike the bumpy, braking experience when landing on concrete. We literally floated backwards onto the white, sand of Dry Tortugas.

Most tourists to this estuary spend a bulk of their time snorkeling the shallow waters directly off the main beach, and our planemates were thrilled at the prospect of underwater vistas. We, however, were fascinated by Fort Jefferson, and spent our visit exploring the Civil War era fort from inside and on top. I imagined the roar of cannons protecting American waters from enemy or pirate ships. We learned that Union soldiers stationed here would put on plays and to combat boredom. When we spoke to a National Park employee, she said she could never get bored. But then, she has internet and cable access, whereas those 1860’s boys didn’t. This fort, never completed, was used as a prison. That must have been torture, to be in a damp, brick cell while paradise lay right outside your window. Just look at this view!

Looking toward the moat from inside the bastion of Fort Jefferson

Once we had our fill of maritime lore, weaponry, romantic vistas, and stolen kisses, we strolled over to the sandy beach and waded in the warm, crystal waters off Garden Key. Like kids, we sat on the beach and examined seashells.

Lighthouse at top of fort

We then walked hand-in-hand along the low, outside wall of the fort to spy a variety of tropical life at the water’s edge. I took so many photos and videos. (To see them all, visit me on Facebook!) When our seaplane arrived for the return trip to Key West, I was thankful I’d taken a risk that day. The isolated, primitive beauty of Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What risk have you taken that paid off?

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23 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. alicamckennajohnson
    Oct 24, 2011 @ 21:46:29

    That is so beautiful! Congratulations on overcoming your fear of small planes, and I love love love Defending Your Life, I haven’t seen it in ages I’ll have to rent it again.

  2. Julie Glover
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 11:13:15

    What a lovely place! I adore flying. It’s on my bucket list to go out in an open cockpit plane. As to the best risk I ever took, after college I packed everything into my Toyota Corolla and moved to another city with no job, no apartment, and only a hotel reservation. Three weeks later, I had a job, a home, and met my future husband. Living with courage doesn’t always pan out that well, but you never know what great stuff will happen unless you try. Great post!

    • Jolyse Barnett
      Oct 25, 2011 @ 17:43:35

      Hi Julie! You make an excellent point about taking risks to make a positive change in your life. I look forward to hearing about your future travels, including that open cockpit plane. 🙂

  3. Gwen Hernandez
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 18:03:11

    Wow, what an amazing adventure, Jolyse! I’m so proud of you for overcoming your fear to do this.

    There are some risks I’m still not willing to take (skydiving, for example), but I try to do the things in life that matter to me (grad school, changing jobs, moving, travel, writing, public speaking). When my husband & I went to Maui for our 10th anniversary (almost 7 years ago already!), we took a small van tour out to Hana and then flew back around the far side and over the volcano’s edge via helicopter. It was fantastic.

    I’m loving this Key West series! Thanks for sharing.

    • Jolyse Barnett
      Oct 26, 2011 @ 18:08:44

      Gwen, that helicopter ride at the edge of the Hawaiian volcano sounds fantastic! Now that I’ve conquered the seaplane, I’m definitely gonna try a heliicopter. We hope to take one over the Grand Canyon the next time we visit Las Vegas.

      I’m so happy you like my Key West stories. There are many more to come. 🙂

  4. Tuere Morton
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 21:02:09

    LOVE the pics, Jolyse! I definitely plan on visiting Key West one of these days. The water is SO beautiful. I used to work with someone who travels a lot with a pilot and she occasionally posts pics. I suppose you can’t be afraid of heights! 😉

  5. Patricia Yager Delagrange
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 19:46:39

    Great review of your vacation, Jolyse! And, of course, the most impressive thing is overcoming your fear of flying. That is HUGE. Everyone has fears but a lot of the time they’re just accepted and never overcome. You DID it! Congratulations. And you had so much fun. That’s really cool.
    Patti

    • Jolyse Barnett
      Oct 27, 2011 @ 19:17:21

      Thanks, Patti! I’m on top of the world because I did it, and it gives me confidence to overcome some of my other fears…like submitting my work to more agents and editors when appropriate. 🙂

  6. Rhonda Hopkins
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 19:50:22

    What a wonderful trip! Congrats on overcoming your fear. I hate to fly period. I do it, but it’s not pleasant for me. I want to go to Australia, but it’s like a 24 hour flight. I’m going to do it one day though. 🙂

    • Jolyse Barnett
      Oct 27, 2011 @ 19:16:04

      That’s funny you should mention Australia, Rhonda. My daughter wants to visit Australia, and I haven’t been able to agree to it (due to my own fears). Now, if she should speak of it again, I’ll encourage her. Why should my irrational fears stop her from the experience of a lifetime?

      See, I’m a changed woman. LOL

      I beieve you will overcome your fear, too, Rhonda. We have to overcome our fears, or else we will regret it.

  7. Jeannie Moon
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 23:05:27

    Bravo! A conquered fear and a beautiful excursion. Does it get much better? Congratulations. ❤

  8. Catie Rhodes
    Oct 27, 2011 @ 10:25:20

    Wow. How completely beautiful. And good for you for going. Like the National Park employee, I don’t think I could get bored there. I could make a lifetime out of looking at that blue water.

    • Jolyse Barnett
      Oct 27, 2011 @ 19:12:11

      I have to tell you, Catie, it was incredible talking to a woman who lives there. The blues and greens almost brought me to tears, it was so beautiful there. Nature is awe-inspiring, but I would miss some of the comforts of home as well as the comraderie of people, especially my loved ones. (Unless, of course, I could convince them to accompany me there!) Thanks for commenting. I love your feedback. 🙂

  9. Debora Dale
    Oct 27, 2011 @ 10:29:11

    What a beautiful post, Jolyse. Your descriptions took me right along with you – almost to the point of being willing to conquer my own fear of small planes! We miss so much because of our fears. Kudos to you for overcoming one of yours and being able to enjoy such a magnificent trip.

    I have to say, I have never been to Key West, but your posts make me ache to do so.

    • Jolyse Barnett
      Oct 27, 2011 @ 19:08:26

      Deborah, thanks for your kind words. I highly recommend Key West to anyone who likes a place not only for its rustic beauty, but for its history and incredible people. They live their slogan, “Come as you are.” Key West is a place that welcomes everyone–but bigots. And they work to live, instead of living to work. That’s what I love about KW.

  10. Donna Coe-Velleman
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 13:29:35

    How wonderful! The island and water look so enticing and the plane ride sounds amazing. Now aren’t you glad you got over your fear? WAHOO!

  11. Bill Chance
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 00:37:24

    Great post, great story and great pictures! We went to Key West a few years ago and I didn’t get to make the trip to Dry Tortugas because of a tropical storm. You entry makes me want to go back.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Jolyse Barnett
      Oct 30, 2011 @ 13:27:46

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Bill. I love to hear from readers!

      I’m sad you’ve been unable to experience Dry Tortugas yet. But, it does give you a wonderful reason to return to Key West (If you really needed one!). You may find my other Key West useful for getaway ideas, or feel free to email me with any questions. I guess you could consider me your informal travel guide for anything Conch Republic. 🙂

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