Dry Tortugas National Park is a national park in the USA about 68 statute miles (109 km) west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The park preserves Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas islands in the Florida Keys.
The park is famous for abundant sea life, colorful coral reefs and legends of shipwrecks and sunken treasures. The park’s centerpiece is Fort Jefferson, a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, and is composed of over 16 million bricks. The park has almost 80,000 visitors each year. The park is accessible only by seaplane or boat. Ferries leave from Key West. Activities include snorkeling, picnicking, camping, scuba diving, saltwater fishing and birdwatching.
The Dry Tortugas, named by Ponce de Leon after he discovered them in 1513, are as remote a group of islands as can be found in the South and yet, still be considered to be located in United State’s waters. Fort Jefferson is the main sight there. Now Dry Tortugas diving is one the most popular in the USA.
Located 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas group is comprised of seven islands, of which three are significant. Garden Key is just south of the Park’s center and is the site of Fort Jefferson. To the east of Garden Key is Bush Key, noted most for its large sea bird nesting site, designated as a sanctuary and prohibited to visit. Off to the west of Garden Key is Loggerhead Key, a coast guard lighthouse station.
ПSince there was no fresh water available anywhere on the islands, de Leon designated the islands as “dry.” Additionally, large numbers of turtles were taken from the waters by his crew, hence the name, Dry Tortugas. De Leon and his crew spent only one day in the Dry Tortugas before setting sail toward the West Coast of Florida. Early navigators had no idea what encounters they might chance upon. On this particular trip, the discovery of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf Stream would prove to be the most important finds of their journey. Slow moving Spanish galleons were now able to carry discovered treasures from the New to the Old World.
Light tower that marks Polatski Shoal, located on the eastern edge of the Park. Divers are briefed about its local resident Jewish fish that commonly inhabits the tower’s legs. Weighing in at around five hundred pounds and over six feet in length makes this dive a must see for any newcomer to the Gulf of Mexico. Polatski’s reef has an abundance of corals, purple seafans, and thousands of tropical fish inhabiting the reef. Hundreds of spiny lobsters live here as if they knew they were protected within the boundaries of the park.
North of Garden Key, Playmate Rock. In slightly less than 50 ft. of water, Playmate Rock rises nearly straight up for thirty feet to an almost flat top with crisscrossed fissures. The walls are decorated with colorful sponges, purple tipped anemones, and seafans. There are small coral caves, large predator fish, and several more large Jewfish.
Garden Key. The site of Fort Jefferson, Garden Key is south of the center of the Dry Tortugas. As we arrive, the pre-Civil War fort nearly covers the ten acre island. Armed with 45-foot high and eight-foot thick walls, the massive fort seems out of place in the tropical setting. In 1846 began the 20 years of labor, placing sixteen million bricks on the small palm-lined island. Despite these efforts, it was never completely finished. Its builders saw this hexagonal structure as a guardian of all shipping coming and going from the Gulf Coast ports and as an important battleship anchorage. Unfortunately, within a few years of the walls reaching their full height, they were considered vulnerable and with the exception of a few hurricanes, the fort never saw any action.
However, Fort Jefferson saw varied numbers of troops through the years. In 1860, there were only a handful of troops and just two years later there were a thousand. The fort has served as a coal station, a quarantine station, and a prison.
The most famous prisoner at the fort was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man found guilty of setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he had fatally shot Abraham Lincoln. Mudd was, however, pardoned in 1869 due to his work in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1867 at the fort.
Two hundred and sixty known ships have been claimed or stranded by the reefs of the Tortugas. One of the most famous is the Avanti, also known as the Windjammer Wreck or French Wreck, which lies just southwest of Loggerhead Key. The steel-hulled 260 foot cargo vessel sits in 20 feet of water, sank in 1907. She harbors 134 different species of fish, and is encrusted with Brain Corals. The Avantiis an excellent site for macro photography because of the ample light and encrusted colorful corals.
Wreck of the Bahia California, a 230-foot freighter which was sunk by a German submarine during WWII. It lies in 115 feet of water. Broken in several pieces, it still contains several artifacts like bottles and dishes, which can be found by the adventurous searcher. Large Jew fish, barracuda, amber jacks and loggerhead turtles are commonly seen on the wreck.