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The Tortugas are 68 nautical miles west of Key West. The seven Tortugas Keys, or Dry Tortugas Islands, and the surrounding waters in the Gulf of Mexico constitute Dry Tortugas National Park. Discovered by Ponce de León in 1513 and named Las Tortugas for their great number of turtles, the islands are called Dry Tortugas because they lack fresh water.
For centuries the islands were inhabited by pirates who were protected from detection by passing vessels by the rocks and shallow waters. Lighthouses were built on Garden Key in 1825 and on Loggerhead Key in 1856.
Strategically located between the United States and South America, the Tortugas attract many species of migratory birds. The most noted inhabitant is the sooty tern, which breeds on Bush Key between March and September. Another familiar inhabitant is the sea turtle, four endangered species of which nest in the park.
Fort Jefferson was begun on Garden Key in 1846, but after 30 years of construction it was still incomplete. Intended to protect vital shipping access to the Gulf, its 8-foot-thick walls and 450 guns were never tested. During the Civil War Federal troops occupied the fort, but by 1866 the introduction of rifled cannon and the fall of Fort Pulaski had made brick and masonry forts obsolete.
In 1861 Fort Jefferson became a prison for army deserters and in 1865 received the four “Lincoln Conspirators,” condemned for their part in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The fort was abandoned in 1874 following a hurricane and a second yellow fever outbreak. The Navy used it as the site for a wireless station in the early 1900s, then as a seaplane base in World War I. In 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the area a national monument.
Access to the park is by private boat (with permit), commercial ferry or seaplane departing from Key West. Operators provide diving and snorkeling trips and guided fishing, wildlife and boating tours. Camping is permitted on the fort's grassy apron, and its shores lend themselves to swimming and snorkeling. No fresh water, food, fuel, supplies or public telephones are available.
Dry Tortugas National Park is open daily dawn-dusk. Admission, valid for 7 days, $10; free (ages 0-15). A $15 fee per site per night is charged for camping. Free boating permits and a brief video presentation are available in the visitor center. For further information contact Dry Tortugas National Park, 40001 SR 9336, Homestead, FL 33034; phone (305) 242-7700.
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Current Location: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida