By Kelly Baughman
The wait for an easier way to travel to one of your favorite beach destinations is over as the Gulf Islands National Seashore introduced the long-anticipated ferry system between downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Fort Pickens on June 22nd. The ferries, which have been a concept in the works since 1978, will feature three stops along each 35-45 minute leg of the journey which will be narrated by park guides.
The ferry offers a way on to Fort Pickens to many people who otherwise may not be able to access the area due to frequent wash out on the road which can leave the area impassible for days, weeks, or even months at a time. Thanks to settlements from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the City of Pensacola, Escambia County, and various local, state, and federal funding sources, the ferries will call the Port of Pensacola home at the head of Commendencia Slip and the Plaza de Luna/Palafox Pier. The $3.5 million dock and terminal building has already proven to be a fantastic addition to the downtown area will accommodate guests with first class service.
The Park Service estimates that over 65,000 passengers annually will take advantage of the ferry system.
The two 150 catamaran-style passenger ferries, known as the Turtle Runner and the Pelican Perch, will offer a climate controlled main deck area with a covered upper deck observation area for those who want to take in the sights and feel the breeze during their trip. Both ferries will be equipped with a full service snack bar that will serve both food and beverages, restrooms, flat screen TV’s, and will be fully handicapped accessible. In addition, the ferries will allow customers to bring bikes onboard and will provide storage racks so customers can explore the island on two wheels.
Last year, Superintendent Dan Brown declared that the naming of the two vessels would be left up to the creativity of fourth grade classes, and later announced Pelican Perch, submitted by Ms. Steven’s class at Cordova Park Elementary School, and Turtle Runner, submitted by Ms. Bradley’s class at Brentwood Elementary School were the winners.
The names were chosen out of 88 submissions by a panel of judges comprised of locals and National Seashore officials. Each submission was judged on various points including its relevance to our local area, wildlife, and commerce, and of course, how the name rolls off the tongue.
Steve Hayes, President of Visit Pensacola said, “We wanted to get the entire city involved from the naming of the vessels to coming out to support the rich history of the city as America’s first settlement in a way that can only be told by the waters that surround our shores. It gives visitors and locals alike a new perspective of the rich culture and history that makes our area so special.”
The maiden voyages of the ferries took place on June 22nd as the Pelican Perch made its way into Pensacola Bay at the hands of Gulf Coast Maritime owner Captain George Aswad. A longtime Staten Island Ferry boat captain, Aswad said he will man the helm of the ferry for the rest of the season, but hopes to expand the fleet in 2019 with a 270 passenger pedestrian vessel that will feature a dinner cruise and various other special events.
The Pensacola Bay ferries will run daily through August 19th, then from August 22nd through September 28th, the ferries will run Wednesday through Sunday.
Regular service will resume in 2019 on March 15th and will run through October 31st of each year. Daily service in 2019 will run from May 15th through August 15th.
All day ferry service tickets will be $20 for adults and will include admission to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and children’s tickets will be $13. Active military and seniors will receive a discounted rate of $18.50, and children under 2 ride free.
For more information or to book your ferry tickets now, visit www.pensacolabaycruises.com.