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Dry Tortugas National Park

Sightseeing at Dry Tortugas National Park

Travelers to Dry Tortugas National Park are drawn in by the inviting beaches and warm waters. Opportunities abound for even a casual visitor to don a diving mask and snorkel to explore the rainbow world of coral reefs under the waves.

Built up over hundreds of thousands of years by tiny calcium-producing polyps, coral reefs attract a stunning variety of sea life. Among the many colorful species one is likely to see are blue-and-yellow-striped grunts, red or turquoise parrotfish, flat angelfish, trumpetfish, and prowling sharks and barracudas.  These reefs include substantial beds of turtle grass, as well as hard corals -- brain, elkhorn, and fan.

Staghorn and elk coral reach for the sunlight, sea fans wave gracefully, green turtles and loggerheads paddle lazily through the waves, and schools of brilliant blue tangs dart safely out of reach. Experienced divers may also explore more than a dozen shipwrecks within the boundaries of the park, some dating back to the late seventeenth century.

There is an abundance of wildlife above the surface, too. Situated on a main flyway between North and South America, the Tortugas are a major stopover for migratory birds, some of which travel as far north as Canada and even Alaska. Dozens of species may be seen in a single day in the park during the height of the spring and fall migrations.

One of the most dramatic events in the park occurs in February, when 100,000 sooty terns nest on Bush Key. Females lay their eggs on the sand and take turns protecting them with the males. The birds stay in the Tortugas until the young are old enough to migrate on their own. Although Bush Key is closed to visitors during the nesting season, the rookery may be observed from the fort on neighboring Garden Key.

Sea turtles also deposit eggs on the islands. As many as two or three times each year, females haul themselves onto the beach, dig a hole in the sand with their powerful flippers, and lay about a hundred golf-ball-sized eggs. Only a fraction of the hatchlings survive; most are eaten by other animals. The survivors return to the sea and take their place in the cycle of life that keeps this fragile ecosystem healthy.

Dry Tortugas National Park Photo Opportunities
An abundance of picturesque views -- both natural and man-made -- turn Dry Tortugas National Park into an excellent place for photo memories. We suggest getting your camera out for the following:

  • Fort Jefferson: Endless photo ops abound in and around Fort Jefferson. Surrounded by manicured lawns and palm trees, the outer walls of Fort Jefferson are at once regal and forbidding. As you tour the fort, you'll notice that views of the moat and seawall are especially striking. Try snapping a shot through one of the cannon windows, which provide a circular frame for the crumbling walls beyond.

    Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses Fort Jefferson, an abandoned military fort.
    ©2006 National Park Services
    The gallery on the first floor of Fort Jefferson features arched doorways.

  • Dry Tortugas Light Station: On Loggerhead Key, the highest of the islands, sits the Dry Tortugas Light Station. With the clear waters in the forefront, frame a picture of the lighthouse from one of the other islands.

  • Wildlife: If you visit the park during migration season, you won't have any trouble finding dozens of varieties of avian life. Among the birds that may be sighted on Dry Tortugas are diminutive western sandpipers, double-crested cormorants, masked boobies, peregrine falcons, roseate terns, brown pelicans, soaring frigate birds with seven-foot wingspans, and a wide variety of warblers.

The wildlife wonderland that now is Dry Tortugas National Park was undiscovered until the arrival of Ponce de Leon in the 16th century. Subsequently, the islands housed pirates, who claimed them as a base for their nefarious adventures. After Florida was acquired, the U.S. government began the construction of Fort Jefferson -- the ruins of which span most of Garden Key. On the next page, learn more about history of the Dry Tortugas.