Exploring the Dry Tortugas National Park

Our final stop in the Florida Keys is Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West and is only accessible by boat.  The name comes from the fact there is no fresh water and Tortugas is Spanish for turtles, which were abundant in past centuries.   You can take a high-speed ferry to get here but it will cost around $140 and you only stay for 3-4 hours, unless you camp overnight.  Either way you are stuck on the main island.  The better way to go is in a private vessel.

The main attraction of the park is the massive Fort Jefferson, which has over 16 million bricks and is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere.  Due to the location of being roughly halfway between the Gulf coast and the East coast it was deemed a prime location for a Third System of Fortification.  The fort was finally begun in 1846 and at one time housed up to 2000 army personnel.  During the Civil War it remained in Union hands and was used as a prison.  The most famous prisoner was Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln because he set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth.  The fort became obsolete and was no longer used by the Army in 1888.  In 1908 Teddy Roosevelt designated it a bird reservation and its status increased from there until it officially became a national park in 1992.

Next to the fort is Bush Key, which is a nesting ground for sooty terns and brown noddies.  It is closed to visitors, but you can watch the birds from the top of the fort.  It was once called Hog Island, because pigs were raised there for fresh meat.

About four miles away is Loggerhead Key with a lighthouse, which you may get a tour of if a park employee is around. The island is the largest of the park’s islands and the highest at a whopping 10 feet. This is a wonderful island to visit with the lighthouse, support buildings, palm trees, and beaches to explore, and you will probably have it all to yourself.

After the fort the best thing to do in the park is snorkel.  You may do this around the fort, but there are better spots at the various sites throughout the park.  If you ask the park rangers, they will give you GPS coordinates of different reefs and wrecks.  

One of the most visited wrecks is Bird Key Wreck.  Not much is known about this wreck except it was a small vessel with an oversized prop and its cargo was bricks, but for where or who no one knows.

Another very popular wreck is the Windjammer.  This wreck was a three-mast sailing vessel that is almost 300 feet long.  It is an amazing site since its features are still recognizable and the depth is only 20 feet.

I hope you get the chance to visit the Dry Tortugas someday, because it is one of the most remote and least visited parks in the US. That is a shame because it has so much to offer!

Visit www.svGuidingLight.com to read more from Captain Shane about the Bahamas, Caribbean, life aboard, world traveling, and more. You might also want to check out his travel video series.

Shane McClellan
Visit www.svGuidingLight.com to read more from Captain Shane about the Bahamas, Caribbean, life aboard, and more.