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Dry Tortugas

Canons in the 19th Century.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Moat in the 19th Century.

Entrance in the 19th Century.


The strategic location of the Dry Tortugas brought a large number of vessels through its surrounding waters as they connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Early on, the shipping channel was used among Spanish explorers and merchants traveling along the Gulf Coast. A large military fortress, Fort Jefferson, was constructed in the mid-19th century in effort for

the United States to protect the extremely lucrative shipping channel. Low and flat, these islands and reefs pose a serious navigation hazard to ships passing through the 75-mile-wide straits between the gulf and the ocean. Consequently, these high risk reefs have created a natural “ship trap” and have been the site of hundreds of shipwrecks. A lighthouse was constructed at Garden Key in 1825 to warn incoming vessels of the dangerous reefs and later, a bricktower lighthouse was constructed on Loggerhead Key in 1858 for the same purpose. Discover and explore the rich heritage of Dry Tortugas National Park on the history and culture pages.

Fort Jefferson.

Dry Tortugas National Park is managed carefully to ensure the resources are protected and visitors have the best opportunities to experience the park as possible.

camping, snorkeling, bird watching, fishing, or just enjoying a view from the top of massive Fort Jefferson-- you quickly realize how magical this place can be...

There are a limited number of commercial use authorizations issued each year who provide one or more of the following services 1) guided fishing trips, 2) dive and/or snorkeling trips, 3) guided wildlife viewing trips and 4) sailing charters to Dry Tortugas National Park during 2008/2009. Included in these are the two ferry boat operators who provide daily access to the park. Visitors from around the globe journey to the Dry Tortugas. A variety of remarkable experiences await those who arrive. Whether you find yourself

Ranger-led tours are available on an intermittent basis. Be sure to check at the Visitor Center on Garden Key for the most current schedule upon your arrival. A self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson is also available. Simply follow the interpretive signage, or inquire at the visitor center for more information.


Fort Jefferson world’s busiest shipping lanes was its greatest military asset. Though passing ships could easily avoid the largest of Fort Jefferson’s guns, they could not avoid the warships that used its harbor. 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.


In 1992, Congress created Dry Tortugas National Park “to protect and interpret a pristine subtropical marine ecosystem, including an intact coral reef community” that is generally regarded as one of the most wellpreserved marine areas in the Florida Keys. The park’s founding legislation also stated that the park would protect fish and wildlife and provide opportunities for scientific research. While commercial fishing has long been off-limits in the park, scientific studies have documented significant declines in the size and abundance of important gamefish, including grouper, snapper, and grunts. Closure of this portion of the park to fishing provides a refuge for both juvenile and mature fish, fish that ultimately fuel the commercial and recreational fishing industries in the Florida Keys.

Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key.

When Visiting

The rich cultural heritage of the Dry Tortugas all begins with its location 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The seven keys (Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle) collectively known as the Dry Tortugas, are situated on the edge of the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Fort Jefferson was built to protect one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America. By fortifying this spacious harbor, the United States maintained an important “advance post” for ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. Nestled within the islands and shoals that make up the Dry Tortugas, the harbor offered ships the chance to resupply, refit, or seek refuge from storms. The location of the Tortugas along one the

Moat today.

National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

The Dry Tortugas have been the site where hundreds of ships have wrecked, stranded, or sustained causalities since its discovery in 1513. The first documented ship wreck occurred in 1622 with the Spanish vessel, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, a 600 ton galleon vessel. The ship was a part of a Spanish convey en route from La Habana, Cuba to Spain. After getting caught in a hurricane, a number of ships became scattered along the Florida straits, including Nuestra Senora del Rosario. Located in the Florida Straits, the Dry Tortugas is situated in the main stream of water that connects the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. This area became heavily trafficked by ships en route to and from the Gulf Coast. There

Loggerhead Key are a number of factors that combine to make the Dry Tortugas a particularly hazardous location where a high concentration of shipwrecks have occurred. Most notably, the Dry Tortugas’ shallow and flat terrain made it difficult for vessels to navigate through. Seasonal changes also increased the risk traveling through the Dry Tortugas. For instance, the water levels are much lower during the dry season, which increases the potential for wreckage. Additionally, storms, hurricanes, strong currents, winds, and other acclimate weather patterns increased the risk and possibility for wreckage. Inaccuracies in navigation charts, technical problems, and human errors have also contributed to the possibility of wreckage.

The Loggerhead light, originally named the Dry Tortugas Light, was constructed in 1858 as a result of the numerous issues with the Garden Key Light. The light was taller, brighter, and equipped with a more modern optical lens than the Garden Key Light. It’s location on Loggerhead Key, the most dangerous key, would also aid vessels in navigating through the area. The US Lighthouse Service maintained Loggerhead Light through World War II, when lighthouse duty was transferred to the US Coast Guard. The light was fully automated in 1982 and all Coast Guard

Sea Turtles

Fish are not the only species facing trouble. Corals have declined precipitously in recent decades; staghorn corals in particular have declined by 99% since 1977. The RNA will provide a living laboratory for scientists to study the reasons for these declines. While the natural resources have been declining, visitation to the Dry Tortugas has quadrupled since 1994. More visitors has meant more impacts on the park’s resources. The RNA will significantly reduce impacts to this area. The need for the RNA can be compared to hurricane preparations. You don’t want until the storm hits to put on your hurricane shutters; you prepare in advance to protect your home and property. The National Park Service has chosen a management method of preventive maintenance and monitoring to ensure the health of the park’s ecosystem.

Turtles are often sighted around Dry Tortugas National Park. Named “Las Tortugas” by Ponce de Leon in 1513, this collection of small sand and coral islands are famous for the abundance of sea turtles that annually nest on them. Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Green turtles can sometimes be spotted floating in the sea on the trip between Key West and the Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas National Park is the most active turtle nesting site in the Florida Keys. Park Service biologists have been monitoring sea turtle nesting activity within park boundaries since 1980. The park’s seven islands are surveyed throughout the nesting season to document the presence of turtles in the park. When researchers find a specially-shaped mound of sand on the beach, they know it is a nest. Each nest is marked and recorded. Fortyfive days later the nest is checked for signs of hatchlings. Three days later, researchers

left the island. While the lighthouse was under construction, a contractor finished construction of a house and kitchen. The main house burned in 1945, but the kitchen still stands and is occupied by National Park Service volunteer caretakers. A “new” lighthouse keeper’s house to the north of the lighthouse was built for the keeper’s family in the 1920s.

evacuate the nest, release trapped hatchlings, and record the number of eggs. The five species of sea turtles found in the Dry Tortugas region are Green, Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, Hawksbill, and Leatherback. All five species were once more abundant, now all five species are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Dry Tortugas National Park P.O. Box 6208 Key West, FL 33041 Phone: 305-242-7700 Fax: 305-242-7711


Dry Tortugas National Park P.O. Box 6208 Key West, FL 33041 Phone: 305-242-7700 Fax: 305-242-7711 Fish are not the only species facing troub...

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