Almost 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., lies a cluster of seven islands, composed of coral reefs and sand, called the Dry Tortugas. With the surrounding shoals and water, they make up Dry Tortugas National Park, an area noted for bird and marine life and shipwrecks. Fort Jefferson, its central cultural feature, is the nation's largest 1800s masonry fort.
First named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) in 1513, by Spaniard Ponce de León, the reefs soon read "Dry Tortugas" on mariners' charts, to show they offered no fresh water. In 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to warn sailors of coral shoals. The light that now stands on Loggerhead Key was built in 1857.
By 1829 the United States knew it could control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico and protect Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade by fortifying the Tortugas. Fort Jefferson's construction started on Garden Key in 1846, and went on for 30 years but was never finished. During the Civil War the fort served as a Union military prison for captured deserters. It also held four men convicted of complicity in President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865. The Army abandoned the fort in 1874.
In 1908 the area became a wildlife refuge to protect the sooty tern rookery from egg collectors. Proclaimed as Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, the area would be redesignated in 1992 as Dry Tortugas National Park to protect its nationally significant scenic, cultural, marine, and scientific values for the education and inspiration of the public. Not least among its natural treasures are its namesakes, the endangered green sea turtles and threatened loggerhead turtles that nest here. Snorkeling, swimming, saltwater sport fishing, underwater photography, birding, and touring the historic fort are popular activities in the park today.
Warm, clear, and well lit, the shallow waters of the Dry Tortugas foster optimal conditions for coral reefs to develop on the outer edges of these islands. Actual builders of these fringing reefs are small primitive animals called polyps. Over centuries these polyps accumulate in living colonies that form the reef's rigid structures that are so often misconstrued as rocks. Though fragile, the Tortugas reef complex supports a wealth of marine life.
Multicolored sea fans sway in gentle currents. Sea anemones thrust upward their rose and lavender tentacles in search of food. Lobsters anticipating danger wave their antennae. Sponges dot sandy bottoms, and staghorn coral clusters simulate underwater forests. Most obvious among coral reef inhabitants are the colorful reef fishes. Vivid and boldly patterned reds, yellows, greens, and blues work like camouflage and identity, warning, and courtship messages. Predatory fish include amberjacks, groupers, wahoos, tarpon, and, atop this coral reef food pyramid, sharks and barracudas.
Sea turtle populations have diminished worldwide mostly from illegal hunting for gourmet meat, leather, and cosmetic oils. But green, loggerhead, and hawksbill turtles can still be seen in the Dry Tortugas.
Sea turtles prey on small marine invertebrates and forage turtle grass and other aquatic plants. Twice or more per season females lumber onto beaches to dig out nests, lay up to 100 eggs, cover them, and retreat seaward. Hatchlings crawl seaward by instinct, but many succumb to natural predators somewhere between the nest and the sea. It is critical that humans not add to the threat by disturbing sea turtles or their nests.
Vital to Nesting Birds
In season a succession of songbirds and other migrants fly over or rest at the Dry Tortugas. The islands lie across a principal flyway between, the United States and Cuba and South America. Familiar up north in summer, many gulls, terns, and migratory shore birds winter here.
A great wildlife spectacle happens yearly between February and September when as many as 100,000 sooty terns gather on Bush Key for nesting season. They come from the Caribbean Sea and west-central Atlantic Ocean. As early as mid-January, sooties perform nocturnal maneuvers above the Dry Tortugas but spend their days at sea. When they do land here in February, egg-laying starts immediately.
Bush Key is closed to landings during tern nesting season, but the rookery is readily witnessed from the fort with binoculars. Sooty parents take turns shading the single egg—laid in a simple depression in warm sandsfrom sunlight. As the young birds grow strong enough for continuous flight, the colony disperses.
Interspersed among the sooties' rookery are up to 10,000 breeding brown noddies. Unlike sooties and most other terns, the noddies nest in vegetation like bay cedar and sea lavender. Sooties and noddies both feed by capturing fish and squid from the sea's surface while in flight.
Magnificent frigate birds soar with seven-foot wingspans. They prey on fish and tern hatchlings. You may also see masked and brown boobies, roseate terns, brown pelicans, and double-crested cormorants.
Be Prepared for Your Visit
The park is open all year. Fort Jefferson is open daylight hours only, as are Loggerhead, East, and Middle keys. Boats and amphibious planes serve the park from Key West. Go to "Plan Your Visit" on the park website for ferry and seaplane information. You must be self-sufficient: the park has no public lodging, water, food, bathing facilities, or supplies. Private pleasure boats are welcome, but must be fully self-sufficient and must acquire a permit through the park rangers at Garden Key.
An entry fee is charged for each person age 16 and up. This fee is collected in the cost of your ferry or seaplane fee. All private vessels that anchor or use mooring balls in the park must come ashore at Garden Key and pay your park entry fee at the self-service fee station on the main dock. Your entry fee is valid for seven days.
Getting Around the Park On arrival see the orientation program at the visitor center in the fort and do the self-guiding fort tour. The parade ground has remains of the Officers' Quarters, Soldiers' Barracks, two magazines, and restored hotshot furnace. Beware of loose mortar and bricks and wall edges. Help us preserve the park's features by leaving everything in place. And please do not litter.
Overnight Stays Camp only in the Garden Key primitive campground (fee), first-come, first-served (until a reservation program is set up). Limit 14 consecutive days, 30 days per calendar year. Grills, picnic tables, compost toilets, and posts for hanging food provided. Groups of 10 or more must obtain a reservation in advancecontact the park. Overnight anchorage in the park must be within one nautical mile of the Garden Key Harbor Light.
Natural and Cultural Features Collecting, commercial fishing, spearfishing, and the taking of conch or lobster are prohibited. Don't disturb shells, coral, sea fans, tropical fish, spiny lobsters, or turtles or their nests. Shipwrecks, their cargo, and all artifacts are protected by federal law.
Closures February to September (or as posted), Bush Key is reserved for birds only. Hospital and Long keys are closed all year. Other closures may occur as necessary.
Loggerhead Key Day use only; no public lodging. All buildings are off limits. The pier is closed to docking by the public: to enter, anchor offshore and approach the beach by small boat.
Research Natural Area Forty-six percent of the park is a Research Natural Area (RNA), part of a national network of ecological areas for education, non-manipulative research, education, and preserving biological and genetic diversity. As sanctuaries for species affected by harvesting or degraded habitat, RNAs provide baseline ecosystem information. (The area within one nautical mile of the Garden Key Harbor Light and the central part of Loggerhead Key are not in the RNA.)
Only non-consumptive recreation activity is allowed in the RNA: There is no fishing or collecting. Anchoring is also prohibited. Contact the park for current regulations or visit Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 35 East Quay, Key West, FL 33040, www.floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html. Tortugas Ecological Reserve, which is next to the RNA, has the highest percentage of living coral cover in the Florida Keys.
Docking, Mooring, Seaplanes, and More
At Dry Tortugas you can enjoy dramatic natural and cultural features. Marine life concentrates near patches of live coral. You can explore the coral wonderlands in just three or four feet of water.
Docking facilities are reserved for park-permitted ferries 10 am to 3 pm daily. Load, unload, and moor vessels only as designated on the public dock and for up to two sunrise and sunset.
Overnight mooring to docks or piers is prohibited. Anchor overnight only within one nautical mile of the fort. To dump or pump holding tanks in park waters is prohibited.
Approaches, landings, and takeoffs by seaplanes must be within one nautical mile of the fort. Moor seaplanes only in the designated area at Garden Key.
Anchoring, fishing, and collecting are prohibited in the Research Natural Area (RNA).
Middle and East keys are closed to protect nesting birds and nesting sea turtles. Bush Key is closed February 1 to September 30 to protect nesting terns. For all closures, people and boats must stay at least 100 feet from the mean low tide mark or obey buoys or signs.
Submerged features, like coral, make navigating in the park's waters hazardous.
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Constructional History of Fort Jefferson 1846-1874 (Albert Manucy, 1961)
Assessment of Natural Resource Condition Assessment in and Adjacent to the Dry Tortugas National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/DRTO/NRR-2012/558 (Christopher F. G. Jeffrey, Sarah D. Hile, Christine Addison, Jerald S. Ault, Carolyn Currin, Don Field, Nicole Fogarty, Jiangang Luo, Vanessa McDonough, Doug Morrison, Greg Piniak, Varis Ranisbrahmanakul, Steve G. Smith and Shay Viehman, July 2012)
Baseline Ambient Sound Levels in Dry Tortugas National Park (Cynthia Lee and John MacDonald, November 2012)
Coastal Vulnerability Assessment of Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) to sea-level rise USGS Open-File Report 2004-1416 (2004)
Coral Reefs in the U.S. National Parks: A Snapshot of Status and Trends in Eight Parks NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/NRR-2009/091 (Nash C. V. Doan, K. Kageyama, A. Atkinson, A. Davis, J. Miller, J. Patterson, M. Patterson, B. Ruttenberg, R. Waara, L. Basch, S. Beavers, E. Brown, P. Brown, M. Capone, P. Craig, T. Jones and G. Kudray, April 2009)
Cultural Landscape Report: Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park (Susan L. Hitchcock and Beth W. Byrd, June 2011)
Fort Jefferson and its Commander, 1861-62 (Josiah H. Shinn, 1910)
General Management Plan Amendment, Dry Tortugas National Park (September 2002)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Dry Tortugas National Park, Revised April 2014 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2014/809 (R. Port, May 2014)
Historic Structure Report: Dry Tortugas Light Station, Ancillary Structures, Dry Tortugas National Park (Lord, Aeck & Sargent Architecture, 2009)
Historic Structure Report: Dry Tortugas Light Station, Keeper's Residence, Dry Tortugas National Park (Lord, Aeck & Sargent Architecture, 2009)
Historic Structure Report: Dry Tortugas Light Station, Lighthouse and Oil House, Dry Tortugas National Park (Lord, Aeck & Sargent Architecture, 2009)
Historic Structure Report, Architectural Data Section: Fort Jefferson National Monument, Florida (Louis Anderson, April 1988)
Historic Structure Report, Historical Data Section: Fort Jefferson: 1846-1898 (Edwin C. Bearss, July 1983)
History of Fort Jefferson 1867 Fort Jefferson Research Memorandum No. 6 (Dexter W. Woods, Enrique Requinaldo, Jr. and Albert Manucy, June 2, 1936, revised January 8, 1938)
Junior Ranger Program, Dry Tortugas National Park (Date Unknown)
Length-based risk analysis of management options for the southern Florida USA multispecies coral reef fish fishery (Jerald S. Ault, Steven G. Smith, Matthew W. Johnson, Laura Jay W. Grove, James A. Bohnsack, Gerard T. DiNardo, Caroline McLaughlin, Nelson M. Ehrhardt, Vanessa McDonough, Michael P. Seki, Steven L. Miller, Jiangang Luo, Jeremiah Blondeau, Michael P. Crosby, Glenn Simpson, Mark E. Monaco, Clayton G. Pollock, Michael W. Feeley, Alejandro Acosta, extract from Fisheries Research, Vol. 249, February 9, 2022)
Masonry Forts of the National Park Service: Special History Study (F. Ross Holland, Jr. and Russell Jones, August 1973)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Fort Jefferson National Monument (George T. Morrison, John Wesley Phillips and Richard A. Rasp, September 6, 1972, revised April 30, 1974)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Dry Tortugas National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/DRTO/NRR-2018/1791 (David R. Bryan and Jerald S. Ault, October 2018)
Park Newspaper: Vol. 3 No. 1, undated
Park Newspaper (Pa-Hay-Okee): Winter 1987
Scientific Studies on Dry Tortugas National Park: An Annotated Bibliography (Thomas Schmidt and Linda Pikula, 1997)
Shipwreck Study-The Dry Tortugas: Fort Jefferson National Monument (Edwin C. Bearss, April 15, 1971)
South Florida Natural Resources Center
The African American Experience at Fort Jefferson 1847-1876 (Jennifer Pirtle, Greg C. Smith and Mary Beth Reed, 2019)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Plan Your Visit: Dry Tortugas National Park (Elizabeth A. Pendleton, E. Robert Thieler and S. Jeffress Williams, 2005)
Last Updated: 18-Apr-2022