Dry Tortugas National Park. Tel (305) 242-7700
Most people don’t realize that the Keys don’t end at Key West. Almost 110 km (70 miles) farther out in the Gulf of Mexico lies a small cluster of islands known as the Dry Tortugas, one of North America’s smallest, most remote, and least visited national parks. Because the Tortugas are so far off the beaten path they still offer adventures for the ecotraveller and especially rich rewards for birding enthusiasts.
The Tortugas were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1530; he named them Las Tortugas for the numerous sea turtles he found in the surrounding waters. Later the word ‘Dry’ was added to the name to warn mariners that there was no fresh water on the islands.
The seven small islands and coral reefs that make up the Dry Tortugas are located in the middle of the migratory flyway between North and South America and are known world wide for their extraordinary bird life. A spring visit to this remote park is considered the highlight of a birding trip to Florida. Spring and Fall migrations can produce many surprises, and the island’s bird list (285 species) is full of ‘accidental’ species from South America or the West Indies, such as Variegated Flycatchers, Thick-billed Vireos and Loggerhead Kingbirds.
Late-winter cold fronts blow flocks of weary warblers, vireos and other songbirds onto the islands. Nesting birds start to arrive in March, and between April and September some 100,000 Sooty terns, 2,500 Brown Noddies and Roseate Terns gather to nest on Bush Key. Other notable nesting birds include the Magnificent Frigate Bird and Masked Booby.
As well as birding opportunities, the Park also offers excellent snorkeling from the beach, and scuba diving opportunities. Sea turtles, including the Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Green and Atlantic Ridley are occasionally seen in the clear shallow water.
Unfortunately, there is no ‘easy’ way to get to the Dry Tortugas. The boat trip takes two to four hours, depending on whether you go by fast catamaran, or regular boat.
Getting there by seaplane takes 45 minutes but is more expensive. Several tour companies leave from Key West early in the morning, let you spend four or five hours on the island then return to Key west in the evening.
There is no lodging available, but there is a primitive campsite that holds 48 people. Campers must pack everything in and out including fuel and water.
Camping info. PDF
Despite the difficulties getting there, and the primitive camping arrangements, a trip to the Dry Tortugas truly is the one of the most extraordinary experiences in Wild Florida.
More information on their web site
Dry Tortugas National Park web site
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