At Dry Tortugas Park, enjoy snorkeling, history, and birdwatching as you explore this amazing bird and marine sactuary. Dry Tortugas Park stretches across seven islands 70 miles out to sea from Key West. It also includes the surrounding waters, and protects the marine life that lives within it boundaries.
Garden Key, one of the seven islands of Dry Tortugas, contains Fort Jefferson. This historic fort from the mid-1800s is the largest coastal fort in the United States. Once used as a military prison, it’s now home to birds who are protected by the sanctuary status of Dry Tortugas Park.
The origin of the name of Dry Tortugas Park comes from none other than Ponce de Leon. Tortugas is Spanish for turtles. There are still lots of sea turtles at Dry Tortugas Park, but centuries ago, before they were hunted by humans, there were even more.
You’ll have the chance to see Sea Turtles if you visit Dry Tortugas Park, and that’s just the beginning. Go snorkeling and see a whole new world of marine life including colorful tropical fish. Also look for porpoise, flying fish, and depending on what time of year, sooty terns who come to the park to nest during the Summer months. During the rest of the year you can spot frigate birds and pelicans.
Whether you plan on doing some birdwatching, snorkeling, touring historic Fort Jefferson, or just relaxing on the beach, a trip out to Dry Tortugas Park is an unforgettable experience!
The Dry Tortugas Fort is a beautiful coastal fort that stands today as an important historical landmark. Almost thirty years in the making, from 1846 to 1875, Fort Jefferson was never even finished and was never armed to capacity. It was important, nevertheless, as part of a chain of coastal forts from Maine to Florida and to California.
The Dry Tortugas Fort is located along one of history’s busiest and most important shipping routes- the Gulf Coast and the eastern seaboard of the US. As part of the Dry Tortugas set of seven islands, it’s located on Garden Key. It’s one the largest ever built, and made quite an impression on the heavy ship traffic that passed by. The Dry Tortugas Fort was never attacked, but it helped stabilize the area when the US was a young nation.
During the Civil War, the Dry Tortugas Fort was in the hands of the Union, and therefor was used as a base from which to blockade ships involved in shipping for the South. It was also used as a prison in the Civil War era, housing Union deserters. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who tended to John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, was imprisoned here.
The US Army abandoned the Dry Tortugas Fort in 1874 and was then used as a coaling station for warships. In 1989 the USS Maine anchored at Dry Tortugas Fort before it sailed to Cuba during the Spanish American War. In 1935 Fort Jefferson National Monument was established, and then in 1992 the seven islands became Dry Tortugas National Park.
The Dry Tortugas were just another group of sub-tropical islands until Ponce de Leon stumbled upon these seven small islands in 1513 and gave them their name. There was quite an abundance of sea turtles, and Tortugas is Spanish for turtle. Later explorers who encountered the Dry Tortugas added the word dry to indicate there was no fresh water to be found here.
The Dry Tortugas became part of the Spanich colonial empire after de Leon claimed the area for his mother country. And there it remained until 1821 when the United States officially acquired Florida and the Florida Keys from the Spaniards. But before that period, the Dry Tortugas served as a vantage point for raids on the Spanish ships and settlements. Dutch and English ships frequently sent fleets out to the Dry Tortugas to battle the Spanish ships. The islands also became a haven to pirates and temporary home to men stranded there by wrecks.
The pirates and other shady types were driven out by the US after the 1820, in a move to make the area safer for shipping. The start of building of the Dry Tortugas Fort in 1846 was also driven by commerce.
All around The Dry Tortugas there are healthy coral reefs and tons of marine life. There are also sea grass beds and far-reaching lagoon environments. These areas are habitat for fish and coral and all types of flora and fauna native to the Florida Keys. There are almost 450 species of fish found at the Dry Tortugas, most of which need the reef environment to live. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the Dry Tortugas is the protection of the marine ecology.
Dry Tortugas National Park is several islands, but if you make the trip out there, you’ll be exploring Garden Key. Garden Key is the location of Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era coastal fort that is today part of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Park Rangers have an office here, and they maintain the grounds as well as protect the sanctuary.
Fort Jefferson is a wonderful bit of preserved history, and as you can see from the picture visitors are allowed to explore the fort, including walking on the upper parts of the outer wall. This is a view from the wall looking across the interior of the fort and to the seas beyond. The upper wall is accessible by original circular steps built into the fort by the toiling army soldiers who constructed Fort Jefferson in the mid-1800s under incredible conditions. They suffered disease and extreme heat under US Army orders and many died.
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the country’s most remote parks. The fort was used as a military prison and you can just imagine the conditions for the prisoners and even the guards. In the days when the fort was built, there was no way to get fresh water for the soldiers. Actually, that’s still true: all water must be brought in. Visitors who visit Dry Tortugas Park with a charter company will have plenty of water and soft drinks provided by the crew on their boat.
Dry Tortugas snorkeling is one of the main reasons for visiting this amazing National Park. Since the entire park is a marine sanctuary, which includes the seven islands plus the water around them, the marine world is abundant and healthy. Dry Tortugas National Park covers one hundred square miles, all of it protected. No fishing, spearfishing, or any type of collection of any type of marine life whatsoever. Here in the picture you can see a mutton snapper and a blue tang hanging around one of the pilings at Fort Jefferson. This is just a short swim from the beach, so even beginners can experience this bit of Dry Tortugas snorkeling.
The snorkeling area at Dry Tortugas extends from the swimming area on the beach around the corner from these pilings, all the way north to the northwest corner of Fort Jefferson. Basically you can follow the moat to the right after entering the water from the beach area. Visitors report seeing a very wide variety of marine life while Dry Tortugas snorkeling. These include rays, starfish, tarpon, star coral, brain coral, purple sea fans, yellowtail damselfish, blue tangs, angelfish, parrotfish, needlefish, groupers, snappers, neon gobys, and butterflyfish.
You can snorkel the pylons or posts which once supported docks for loading coal, on two sides of the fort. The pilings have stood for over one hundred years, accumulating coral, which is habitat for fish.
There are no life guards at the Dry Tortugas so snorkel safely. Don’t touch coral, because it may cause their mucous membranes to erode, leaving the coral species susceptible to disease and death.
Key West and the Florida Keys is home to some of the most diverse saltwater ecosystems in the United States. This draws anglers from all over the world to fish the water surrounding the islands.
Key West Fishing is a major draw to people coming to the Islands for vacation. There are many key west fishing charter operations that cater to people of all skill levels. So if you are into fishing it is highly recommended to try your luck on one of the many boats waiting for you.