This August will mark 460 years since Spanish explorer and Conquistador Tristán de Luna sailed 11 vessels into what is now known as Pensacola Bay and established the nation’s oldest (but short-lived) European settlement. Now two 150-passenger catamaran-style ferryboats are plying those waters, thanks to settlement funds resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment (DWH NRDA) process. The ferries, which started service last year, began running from downtown Pensacola from a new $3.5 million brand-new home port that opened for business on April 20, 2019.

In addition to damaging natural resources, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the response to it prevented the public from using the beaches and the waters in many places along the Gulf of Mexico. Among those were parts of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, typically one of the top-10 most visited National Park Areas in the United States. The DWH NRDA process led to a settlement with BP in which funds were earmarked specifically to help restore lost visitor use. The two ferries were purchased with $4 million of the settlement funds for this purpose.

The ferries, named Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch by local fourth-grade students, will carry passengers between their new home port in downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and historic Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch feature a climate-controlled enclosed main deck and a shaded upper deck for observation, and are equipped with a snack bar for food and beverage service, a well as restrooms and passenger storage. The ferries were constructed to Americans with Disabilities Act standards and have bike racks for those wishing to explore Fort Pickens or Santa Rosa Island by bicycle.

At an April 13 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new ferry terminal building, Pensacola City Council Member Ann Hill stressed how the ferries and infrastructure will advance efforts to promote outdoor recreation. “We work for walkability and bike-ability and to make our waterfront more accessible,” she said. “Now are adding boat-ability!”

Local officials noted at the ceremony that in addition to being a tourist attraction, the ferries would ensure continued public access to the park should it eventually become impractical to continually repair and rebuild a road that connects Santa Rosa to the mainland. Fort Pickens Road has washed out frequently during hurricanes and even heavy rain events.

At the ceremony and in media interviews, park Superintendent Dan Brown has noted that the new service isn’t intended to be simple point-to-point transportation like a vehicle ferry or basic public transport. He says park rangers are onboard to provide information about the park and its historic Fort Pickens and to point out dolphins, pelicans, and other wildlife. In this way, the service provides the community and visitors a unique way to experience the exceptional natural and man-made wonders of Pensacola Bay.

Nearly a century after Tristán de Luna’s arrival in Pensacola waters, the Royal Geographer Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora described Pensacola’s natural harbor as “the finest jewel possessed by His Majesty … not only here in America but in all his kingdom.” Now locals and visitors to the area can better access and enjoy that jewel.

Contributed by Nadine Siak, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, SE Region/Gulf Restoration Program.

Read more about the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) for the Gulf of Mexico.