Dry Tortugas National Park

I once thought the Florida Keys ended at Key West.  That is indeed the farthest one can travel by car.  Then a few years ago I learned the Keys continue for another 67 miles, all the way to the tiny islands of Dry Tortugas National Park.  The prospect of visiting such a remote outpost at the edge of the nation appealed to me.  I liked the thought of being nearly 70 miles from permanent human habitation, separated by nothing but open ocean.  After some research and planning, I finally made the trip there on April 10.

Upon boarding the Yankee Freedom II catamaran in Key West, the two-and-a-half hour ferry ride began.  For a while we were always within sight of land.  There are quite a few islands scattered west of Key West.  After about 30 miles we passed the uninhabited Marquesas Keys.  Then there was nothing but open ocean for the last 37 miles.

After quite some time the first island of the Dry Tortugas came into view:  The desolate East Key:

East Key photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

The similar islands of Middle Key and Hospital Key followed.  At the same time the larger island of Garden Key came into view thanks in no small part to the massive nineteenth century fort that sits upon it:

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

As we circled Garden Key to reach the dock, we also passed the largest island of Loggerhead Key:

Loggerhead Key photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

This island also has the highest elevation at a whopping 10 feet.  I can’t imagine being here during a hurricane.

Entrance to Fort Jefferson photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

Upon arrival at the Garden Key dock, it’s hard to miss Fort Jefferson.  Under construction from 1846 until 1875, the massive brick structure was never really finished and was eventually abandoned by the army.  Originally envisioned to combat piracy in the area, the fort later served as a Union prison during the Civil War.  While this piece of history was interesting to me, I really came here for the wildlife.  Skipping the ranger-led tour of the fort, I headed out to see the exotic wildlife that call the Dry Tortugas home.

The Yankee Freedom II ferry docked at Garden Key at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

Leaving the Yankee Freedom II behind me, I made a beeline for the beach near the north coaling dock ruins.  Along the way I got some more views of the impressive Fort Jefferson:

Fort Jefferson and its moat on the walk towards the north coal dock ruins. Photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

Fort Jefferson and its seawall. Photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

Here the sky was full of gigantic magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens, Fregatidae):

Magnificient frigatebird (Fregata magnificens, Fregatidae) photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

Another seabird was standing on the beach:

Unknown seabird photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

And a pelican (Pelecanus sp., Pelecanidae) was trolling the turquoise waters just offshore:

Pelican (Pelecanus sp., Pelecanidae) photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

On the beach the sand was littered with coral and shells:

Coral and shells along the beach, photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

Once in the water I came across sergeant majors (Abudefduf saxatilis, Pomacentridae)…

Sergeant major (Abudefduf saxatilis, Pomacentridae) photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

yellowtail snappers (Ocyurus chrysurus, Lutjanidae)…

Yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus, Lutjanidae) photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia, Scaridae)…

Rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia, Scaridae) photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

…and great barracudas (Sphyraena barracuda, Sphyraenidae):

Great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda, Sphyraenidae) photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

Along the seawall of Fort Jefferson I also saw blue tangs, a lot of trumpetfish, and a southern stingray.

Before I left I wanted to capture the beauty of the sand and water, so I had my wife take this picture of me in front of the land bridge linking Garden Key to the bird sanctuary on Bush Key.  If you zoom in you can see the huge number of birds buzzing around in the background:

The author standing on Garden Key overlooking Bush Key. Photographed 04/10/2012 at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.

On the ferry ride back to Key West we were treated to glimpses of green sea turtles, a bottlenose dolphin, and a manta ray.

Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park was an amazing experience.  My only regret is that I didn’t spend several days camping there and snorkeling the clear waters teeming with marine life.  That prospect definitely gives me a reason to return.

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About Jeremy Sell

Science and nature nerd.
This entry was posted in Invertebrate Zoology, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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