Dry Tortugas National Park

A seaplane at Dry Tortugas National Park

Explore Dry Tortugas National Park In Florida

While the name of the park starts with the word ‘Dry’, 99 percent of the park is underwater. Dry Tortugas National Park on the westernmost isolated of the Florida Keys is a dream tourism destination in every definition of the word. The 100-square miles of open picturesque blue water and seven small islands, only accessible by boat or seaplanes is a place of history and beauty coupled with solitude and serenity. The beauty of waving palms, beautiful coral reefs, turquoise fish and seabirds is only paralleled by Fort Jefferson, which is one of the nation’s largest 19th century forts in the United States. In addition to the natural beauty, a heartbreakingly beautiful contrast is provided by legends of shipwrecks and sunken treasures. Dry Tortugas National Park is part of the Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve, established by UNESCO in 1976 under its Man and the Biosphere Program.

The Historical Fort Jefferson

Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of seven small islands, all of which are exquisite in their own way. But the crown jewel for this park is the fort that displays the remains of a building that was once used as a prison during the Civil War. The Visit Florida website says, “Sixteen million bricks were used in a construction project never quite completed. Two hundred arches hold up the interior. Cisterns collected 1,500,000 gallons of rainwater. More than 400 heavy guns took aim at the sea. Thousands of forgotten workers, among them slaves at one point, provided the hard labor.”

Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida

The fort was built to protect a strategic deepwater anchorage, and set up protections to guard against military attacks. The United States gained one of the strongest posts for ships patrolling in the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. The very islands that surround the fort were also used as a harbor to offer ships the chance to refill their supplies, the ships, and also provided a refuge from storms.

According to the National Park Service website, “In enemy hands, the Tortugas would have threatened the heavy ship traffic that passed between the Gulf Coast (including New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola) and the eastern seaboard of the United States. It could also serve as a potential staging area, or “springboard” for enemy forces. From here they could launch an attack virtually anywhere along the Gulf Coast.”

The construction of the fort took nearly three decades and even then it was never fully finished and fully armed. Although it wasn’t finished, the strategic location of the fort meant that while the passing ships could avoid the guns placed in the fort, they could not avoid or escape the warships that occupied its harbor. During the Civil War, Union warships used this fort to block southern shipping while the islands were also changed into prisons for deserters. For history buffs, another interesting nugget of information is this is the very prison that held Dr. Samuel Mudd, a confederate sympathizer and the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Mudd was sentenced to the fort for his involvement in the assisignation of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Jefferson Fort maintained its importance in times of war during both world wars as well. In 1898, The USS Maine left the Tortugas to a fateful mission to Cuba from this very location. However, the following years saw the fort’s battle importance slowly fade away.  Now it is a lot more about the splendor and tragedies of the past wars, and a memoir of the grand construction and strategic talents of the people of the past.

The Islands at The Dry Tortugas National Park

While there is a lot more to be said about Fort Jefferson than the seven islands that surround the fort, the historical significance of this archipelago goes beyond war and the fort. Legend has it that during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Spanish treasure ships dotted the Straits of Florida, which also made the area a prime hunting ground for Pirates. A while later the area also became an attraction for those making a living out of salvaging sunken ships and recovering cargo from them. This ‘wrecking’ business became so profitable that it had to be regulated, but despite that Key West became one of the richest cities during the 19th century.

Military plane above Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park

While there are no pirates or wreckers around the Dry Tortugas anymore, those who still believe in the quest for lost treasures still come to see the mysteries of this park. Not long ago, in 1985, treasure hunters managed to salvage $450 million in gold and silver from a sunken 17th century Spanish ship. Even for those not on a mission to salvage treasures, the two-hour-plus ferry ride is an adventure reminiscent of times gone by.

Location and Landscape

The Dry Tortugas National Park is located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The park represents the westernmost extent of the Florida Keys and boasts of several reefs and submarine banks. The park is almost all water (99 percent) with seven islands spread east to west; Loggerhead Key, Garden Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key and East Key. The park is bordered on the east, south and west by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and on the northwest by the Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

While it is possible to travel by a private boat to the islands, the long distance makes it difficult. Most visitors prefer to go through a seaplane or a ferry from Key West. There are multiple official ferry and transportation services available at the Dry Tortugas Park. About the geology of the park, it is the western extension of an curved chain of pleistocene reef and oolitic limestone islands, with the eastern limit in the vicinity of Miami. The Limestone reefs go up to 200 feet, but they are mostly located in the western end of the park. There are also several thick spots of ‘quicksand’ between the Dry Tortugas and Key West.

The climate of the area is often rainy and  coincides with the Atlantic hurricane season from May to October. The dry season in the Dry Tortugas is from November through April. One of the reasons that this park is called ‘Dry Tortugas’ is even though it is submerged in water all around the islands, the actual landscape of the park remains dry. It is actually one of the driest places in all of Florida.There is no large forest canopy or jungle body, and that coupled with the sandy soul and intense sun produce drought-like conditions. This is not uncommon for islands. Seasonally there are also temperature variations with the highest annual extreme of 106 degrees Fahrenheit for this park.

Wildlife at the Monument

The Dry Tortugas has a diverse history of wildlife and happens to have both above and underwater species for tourists to watch. From birds to sea turtles and from quicksand to coral reefs, there is a lot to see. The sea turtles around the area are known as Las Tortugas, which is the Spanish name given to them for swimming around and nesting on the sandy beaches. Tortugas actually mean “turtles” in Spanish. The two most common species in the area are green turtles and loggerhead species. However, the NPS website warns that if you spot turtles while your visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park maintain your distance.

Sea life at  Dry Tortugas National Park

Additionally there are several species of reefs and fish in the area along with several other types of marine life just below the surface of the water. You might encounter squids and tropical reef fishes, or see sharks, octopus and goliath groupers. If you prefer looking up in the air while dipping your feet in the water, you might also be lucky enough to spot several species of birds. Nearly 300 species of birds have been spotted in the Dry Tortugas. If you visit in the right season you might be able to watch thousands of sooty terns roosting on a tiny speck of land or pelagic seabirds might greet you on your way to the islands. If you are very lucky you might also be able to spot the really rare and elegant White-tailed Tropicbird.

Things to do at the Park

While the beauty and the landscape of the park itself are reasons enough to attract tourists from all over the world, there are several things to do. For those who want to spend their time doing activities other than soaking in their surroundings, there is camping and swimming to snorkeling and diving.  There is a whole range of adventurous and entertaining activities to do at this national park.

Sailboats in front of Fort Jefferson

For those wishing to do camping, the campsite information is provided in detail on the National Park Service website. An individual site can accommodate three tents, meaning six people, but there is no prior booking option available. It is on a first-come, first-served basis. However, this does not mean that you will not be able to find accommodation. The management of the park ensures that all campers are provided with a place to camp upon their arrival.

For those interested in swimming among marine life and exploring the depths of water through snorkeling, the only requirement is to not disturb the coral or shells – living or dead as they are also protected from collection. Same is the case with shipwrecks and all historic artifacts that come under legal protection. The historic Coaling Pier Pilings, the moat wall, little Africa Reef Collection, and Windjammer Wreck are some of the sites most popular for snorkeling. Finally, there is also the option of boating. Bringing your own boat will provide you with most freedom and opportunities to explore the area.

Things to Remember When Planning Your Trip

While there will be no shortage of activities or scenery to keep you entertained at the park, there aren’t a lot of options to get drinkable water or any food at the site. The NPS recommends that tourists bring two gallons of water per person,especially because of the hot weather.  When bringing food containers make sure that they are hard-sided so they stay safe from the crabs. It is also advisable to take an extra day’s supply of food and water in case there are ferry cancellations. Tents and warm and cold clothing are also the tourists’ own responsibility. You should ideally bring rain gear, as well as a long sleeved shirt and long pants, and a hat. Sunglasses and sunscreen are also recommended. Like any other camping trip, it is always better to plan ahead.

Woman snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park