About 70 miles west of Key West lie a string of seven gems – the Dry Tortugas Islands. The islands, roughly from west to east, are Loggerhead Key, Garden Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key and East Key.
These beautiful coral islands are largely undisturbed ecology and the farthest and best preserved of the Florida Keys. Its pristine beauty could be put down to its relative inaccessibility and distance from the Florida mainland and Key West.
You can only get there by a seaplane, boat, ferry or catamaran. Ferry services operate every day from Key West and include the Yankee Freedom III catamaran. The air route takes about 45 minutes and the boat trip about 3 hours.
As you fly above in your seaplane or as your boat rides across the achingly blue waters you cannot help but thank the heavens for taking the time and effort to see and experience nature’s magic.
The islands and the waters around them come under the purview of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Ninety-nine percent of the Park is water and land accounts for only 104 acres! The Park authorities have done an admirable job of maintaining and preserving the magical habitat and ecosystem of this tiny archipelago.
As part of the protection and conservation efforts, the north and western regions of the Park including the central islands have been declared “research natural area.” What it means is that no marine life (of any description) can be taken. Nor can ships anchor there. Only 54 percent of the Park environs are open for fishing.
The islands were named ‘dry’ because there is no fresh water on them. The islands were first explored and named, by the Spaniard Juan Ponce de León, in 1513. He supposedly caught 160 large sea turtles and named the islands Tortugas (‘turtles’). Every summer, these creatures still clumsily plod up the beaches to lay and bury their precious eggs.
Besides the turtles there are large numbers of sea creatures, spectacularly coloured coral reefs and a profuse amount of birds. Oh yes! Tales of sunken treasures abound because of the more than 200 ships that were wrecked on and around the islands.
In addition to nature’s treasures the Park also contains the incredible Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. The structure was never completed yet it contains 16 million bricks. It has been designated a National Monument. Work began on the fort in 1847. It stopped and started and finally stopped sometime during the American Civil War.
Birds you will regularly see are the sooty tern, brown noddy, brown pelican, the magnificent frigate bird, masked booby, roseate tern, and mourning dove. However, the Park lists 299 species that show up here. The best time to come bird-watching is in spring (April through to May) because aside from the resident birds, dozens of migratory species pass through every day. You may even get to see falcon and cattle egrets.
You can indulge in snorkelling, picnicking, camping scuba diving, fishing and bird watching among all the stunning sights of the Dry Tortugas National Park.
When to Go
Temperatures in the area range from around 90°F (32°C) in summer to around 66°F (19°C) in winter. The best time to visit is during April and May when the climate is pleasant.
When Not to Go
Winter is often windy with rough seas. The tropical storm or hurricane season lasts from June through November, when temperatures and humidity are highest.
Image Credit: Varina and Jay Patel