Dry Tortugas National Park Facts! In this article, we provide you with 12 amazing facts about one of America’s most magnificent national parks.
More Than Just Parks is your one-stop-shop when it comes to learning everything you’ll need to know about America’s national parks. We’ve got expert guides, beautiful photos, helpful tips, breathtaking films and so much more.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind some of these natural wonders. Then I got to see them firsthand.
And now I’m sharing some of the incredible stories about these beautiful places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
More Than Just Parks takes a deeper dive with its national park facts. We’ve done our homework so that you’ll get more than you bargained for.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Table Of Contents: Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
- 1. Some Basic Facts About Dry Tortugas National Park
- Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
- Top 5 Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
- Top 12 Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
- 7. Pirates & Privateers Used The Harbor At Dry Tortugas
- 8. There Are Over 250 Shipwrecks In The Dry Tortugas Area
- 9. A Historic Fort Was Built At Dry Tortugas
- 10. Fort Jefferson Held People Involved In The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln
- 11. Dry Tortugas Played An Important Role In The Spanish-American War
- 12. Sea Turtles Make Their Home At Dry Tortugas
- 13. The Dry Tortugas Are A Birding Paradise
- Map Of Dry Tortugas National Park
Facts About Dry Tortugas National Park
1. Some Basic Facts About Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is located in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles west of Key West. It’s the westernmost part of the Florida Keys Reef Tract which is 90 miles north of Cuba, 200 miles south of Tampa Bay and 70 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer.
The park consists of seven small sandy coral islands representing 97 acres of dry land. These islands are surrounded by shallow rocky coral reefs, sandy ocean bottoms and sea grasses.
Today visitors to the park tour the remains of Fort Jefferson. It’s also a great place to snorkel in clear aquamarine waters. And while you’re doing it, you can see historic shipwrecks, colorful reefs and beautiful fish.
People come to see the unique birds which inhabit these islands or to relax on the beautiful white beaches and listen to gentle pounding of the surf.
Here’s A Few Of The Basic Facts
- Location: Florida
- Acreage: The park comprises 47,125 acres.
- Visitation: .More than 80,000 people a year come to see and explore this secluded oasis and all of its eco-wonders.
- Elevation: 10 feet.
- Average annual precipitation: Throughout the year, in Dry Tortugas National Park, there are 87.8 rainfall days, and 36.42″ (925.1mm) of precipitation is accumulated.
- When Did It Become A National Park? Fort Jefferson National Monument was designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. The monument was expanded in 1983 and re-designated as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992 by an act of Congress.
Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
Top 5 Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
2. Ponce De Leon Discovered Dry Tortugas & Named It “The Islands Of Turtles”
If you’re interested in stories about famous explorers then one of the most interesting Dry Tortugas National Park Facts is that the famed explorer Ponce De Leon discovered Dry Tortugas in 1513. He and his crew found the area teeming with wildlife.
They captured about 160 sea turtles, 14 seals and more than 5,000 birds.
Ponce de Leon named the islands “Las Islas de Tortugas” (The Islands of Turtles).
3. Seals At Dry Tortugas Were Hunted To Extinction
Another of the fascinating Dry Tortugas National Park Facts is that the seals living there were Caribbean monk seals which once ranged throughout the Caribbean Sea.
Unfortunately, they became a rare species as they were hunted and caught for food. The last confirmed sighting of this creature was in 1952. In 1996, it was declared to be extinct.
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4. These Islands Are Known As The “Sand Keys”
For me, one of the most intriguing of the Dry Tortugas National Park Facts involves the geologic history of the islands. About 15,000 years ago there was a warming period. Ice began to melt and the seas began to rise. Over 5,000 years, the sea rose about 350 feet.
Coral reefs formed as the sea reclaimed the land. Today the reef is approximately 200 miles long. It’s northern end is near Miami and its southern and western end terminates at the Dry Tortugas.
The keys which lie west of Key West, and this includes the Dry Tortugas, are known as the “sand keys.” Why you might ask? Likely it’s because they consist of carbonate sands which are on top of the deeper reef formations.
5. Dry Tortugas Once Featured A Lighthouse & Research Laboratory
Dry Tortugas National Park has one of the more interesting histories when it comes to places which have become national parks. Given its importance as an area frequented by ships, a lighthouse was constructed in 1857.
This lighthouse was known as the “Loggerhead Lighthouse” because it was built on the largest of the islands named Loggerhead Key.
Not only was there a lighthouse, however, but it was also the location of a research laboratory. It was called the Tortugas Laboratory which was build and operated by the Carnegie Research Institute from 1904 until 1939.
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6. There Were Ship Disasters & Sunken Treasure At Dry Tortugas
Another of the extraordinary Dry Tortugas National Park Facts is that one of the worst disasters at sea occurred in 1622. After leaving Havana for Spain, a fleet of Spanish Treasure Galleons were struck by a hurricane.
Three of the treasure galleons and is other ships were destroyed in the storm. These ships included: the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, Santa Margarita and Nuestra Senora de Rosario.
This tragedy claimed the lives of 500 sailors and passengers along with a cargo of gold, silver and emeralds.
The Spanish did manage to recover some of their treasure. One of their ships, however, remained lost. It was the Aocha which was finally discovered in 1983 by the treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
Mel Fisher Treasure Museum
Among the interesting Tortugas National Park Facts is the story of how Mel Fisher opened a treasure museum.
In December of 1992, world famous treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, opened a permanent museum in Sebastian, Florida. Mel started his full time treasure hunting career in Vero Beach when he moved there with his wife Dolores and their family, from California in 1963.
Mel spent the next 7 years successfully salvaging the 1715 Fleet, a fleet of sunken treasure-laden ships, which sank off the coastline which is why the surrounding area got the name, “Florida’s Treasure Coast.” He then went on to discover the main pile of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha in July of 1985.
This is the largest underwater treasure find in history. Mel’s family continues the search for the remaining cargo of the Atocha today. (Source: Mel Fisher Treasure Museum)
To learn more about he incredible story of Mel Fisher I recommend: Today’s The Day! The Mel Fisher Story by Wendy Tucker.
Top 12 Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
7. Pirates & Privateers Used The Harbor At Dry Tortugas
Just when you thought we couldn’t come up with any more unbelievable Dry Tortugas National Park Facts we’ve come up with another one.
The Spanish were not the only ones interested in Dry Tortugas. The Spanish, French, British and Dutch fought to control the lands and the seas of the Caribbean. And this created an opportunity for pirates and privateers.
For over three hundred years, pirates and privateers (private vessels composed of mercenaries that hired out to different countries) attacked and robbed treasure from the merchant ships heading into and out of the ports along the Florida coast.
After these vessels attacked and took their treasure, they would sometimes try to elude any pursuers by escaping into the shallow waters of the Dry Tortugas and the other Florida Keys.
Florida even has its own history of pirates who tried to attack Spanish vessels to steal goods onboard. Well-known pirates like Sir Francis Drake, Robert Searles, and Harry Jennings were among the first pirates to leave a mark on Florida’s history.
8. There Are Over 250 Shipwrecks In The Dry Tortugas Area
Dry Tortugas and the other islands comprising the Florida Keys are surrounded by shallow water filled with coral and rocks. Add to this the strong currents, frequent storms, poor charts and crude navigational devices prior to the modern age and it all adds up to a recipe for disaster.
Or, in the case of Dry Tortugas, a graveyard of wrecked vessels dating from the 16th century to the present day.
Perhaps the least known of our Dry Tortugas National Park Facts is that there are over 250 documented shipwrecks in this area representing ships from around the globe.
9. A Historic Fort Was Built At Dry Tortugas
After America’s Louisiana Purchase, there was a significant increase in goods travelling along the Mississippi River down to New Orleans and around the tip of Florida.
The United States decided that it needed to increase the number of forts along the eastern seaboard so Congress appropriated funds in 1844 to build a fort at Garden Key.
Under the leadership of Chief Engineer Joseph Totten and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fort was designed as an elongated hexagon with four sides measuring 477 feet long and two sides at 325 feet, to be made of brick and masonry and surrounded by a moat that would be 70 feet wide.
It was the largest all-masonry fort in the United States.
The fort, which was named after America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was built between 1846 and 1875 to protect the nation’s gateway to the Gulf of Mexico.
The fort was occupied by Union forces during the American Civil War and served as a military prison shortly after the beginning of the war.
10. Fort Jefferson Held People Involved In The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln
Now here’s another one of the fascinating Dry Tortugas National Parks Facts. While Fort Jefferson held military prisoners during the American Civil War, it also held four civilian prisoners at the war’s end who were involved in one of the most dastardly deeds in American history.
Three other people charged in the conspiracy were also sentenced to prison at Fort Jefferson along with Dr. Mudd. They were: Edward Spangler, Michael O’Loughlin and Samuel B. Arnold.
Dr. Mudd actually attempted to escape from the prison. He hid aboard a supply ship that was unloading supplies during a work detail. His guards noticed that he was missing, however, and were able to recapture him before he could get away.
In the end Dr. Mudd’s stay at Fort Jefferson was short due to his heroic action and leadership during the yellow fever epidemic on the island in 1867. Due to his participation in efforts to help the sick, Dr. Mudd finally received a pardon on February 8, 1869, signed by President Andrew Johnson in front of Mudd’s wife.
11. Dry Tortugas Played An Important Role In The Spanish-American War
Another of the most interesting yet little known Dry Tortugas National Park Facts is that Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson played an important role in more than one American war. In January of 1898, the U.S.S. Maine weighed anchor near Dry Tortugas before heading to Havana.
While at anchor in the Cuban harbor, it blew up and sank. Two hundred and sixty of the three hundred and fifty five men were killed as a result of the explosion. The United States blamed Spain for this tragedy, moved to recognize the independence of its Cuban colony and immediately declared war against the Spanish.
During the war, Fort Jefferson served as a military hospital. It also served as a supply base for American forces headed to Cuba.
The Spanish-American War ended before the year was over with the defeat of Spain. Cuba became an independent nation in 1902.
Fort Jefferson was also used by the military during World War One as a seaplane base and wireless radio station.
Its harbor was used during World War Two by torpedo boats, minesweepers, and convoy escort vessels to protect against the threat of German submarines.
12. Sea Turtles Make Their Home At Dry Tortugas
When Ponce de Leon and his crew arrived they marveled at the presence of so many sea turtles.
The low sandy islands of the Dry Tortugas actually make excellent nesting places for these creatures which is why they are so plentiful there.
While there are only five miles of sandy beaches that provide a suitable place for turtle nests they happen to be among the best nesting areas in the Florida Keys.
Now here’s another interesting fact. The temperature of the sand helps to determine the sex of the turtles. At temperatures of about 85 degrees, the eggs are approximately evenly divided between males and females. Higher temperatures increase the number of females whereas lower temperatures increase the number of males.
13. The Dry Tortugas Are A Birding Paradise
Another of the intriguing Dry Tortugas National Park Facts is that Dry Tortugas are a birding paradise. Why you might ask? Because they’re located in the flyway between the United States, Cuba, the West Indies and South and Central America.
As a matter of fact, hundreds of species of migrating songbirds and warblers arrive each spring. It’s a rest stop for these feathered creatures on their journey from their southern winter home to their northern winter home.
Other birds that can be seen include: hawks, kestrels and peregrine falcons.
Map Of Dry Tortugas National Park
List Of Dry Tortugas National Park Facts
- Ponce De Leon Discovered Dry Tortugas & Named It “The Islands Of Turtles”
- Seals At Dry Tortugas Were Hunted To Extinction
- These Islands Are Known As The “Sand Keys”
- Dry Tortugas Once Featured A Lighthouse & Research Laboratory
- There Were Ship Disasters & Sunken Treasure At Dry Tortugas
- Pirates & Privateers Used The Harbor At Dry Tortugas
- There Are Over 250 Shipwrecks In The Dry Tortugas Area
- A Historic Fort Was Built At Dry Tortugas
- Fort Jefferson Held People Involved In The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln
- Dry Tortugas Played An Important Role In The Spanish-American War
- Sea Turtles Make Their Home At Dry Tortugas
- The Dry Tortugas Are A Birding Paradise
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
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