Let the Yankee Freedom III ferry you to the Dry Tortugas, Florida’s Yellowstone. This 100 square mile underwater national park is the last region of healthy shallow and deep reef habitats in the Florida Keys and one of the most fertile marine nurseries in the hemisphere. The Dry Tortugas National Park, just 70 miles from Key West, is a nature lover’s paradise. Surrounded by sparkling blue and green waters, Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas boasts a pristine subtropical marine ecosystem which includes an intact coral reef community. Populations of fish and wildlife, including loggerhead and green sea turtles make these islands a real piece of treasure. The park maintains one of the most isolated and least disturbed habitats for endangered and threatened sea turtles in the United States. And it supports the only significant North American sooty and noddy tern nesting colony on Bush and Long Key and harbors the only frigate bird nesting colony in the U.S. on Long Key.
Another world awaits those who wish to get wet! Within the waters of the Dry Tortugas National Park, visitors will find hundreds of different fish, coral, rays, and eels. These waters are considered to be some of the healthiest underwater preserves in the United States! As part of your Key West eco tour aboard the Yankee Freedom III, you are free to borrow snorkeling gear for the day.
From their discovery in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, through the visit of naturalist John James Audubon in 1832, to the present, the Dry Tortugas have been known for their amazing richness in migrating land birds and vast seabird colonies. Imagine, 100,000 Sooty Terns all in one place, all at one time.
Turtles are everywhere in and around the Dry Tortugas National Park. Named “Las Tortugas” by Ponce de Leon in 1513, this scattering of small sand and coral islands approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, are famous for the abundance of sea turtles that annually nest on them. Some say that sea turtles are today’s only living relics of the prehistoric past. Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Green turtles sometimes are seen floating in the sea on the trip between Key West and the Dry Tortugas National Park.
The Dry Tortugas is home to some of the most vibrant coral reefs in the United States, and is a snorkeler’s wonderland. It lies about six miles off shore and stretches from Miami in the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico. This amazing structure is made up of layers of calcium carbonate secreted by coral polyps throughout thousands of years and is the home of hundreds of tropical fish and marine life. The corals receive their vibrant colors from polyps containing algae called zooxanthellae, which also helps to keep the corals alive. It is important for snorkelers not to touch the corals, as damaging the delicate polyps can make corals susceptible to bleaching and disease. Today’s snorkelers are cautioned to “look but not touch.”
Though fragile, the Tortugas reef complex supports a wealth of marine life. Multicolored sea fans sway in gentle currents. Sea anemones thrust upward their rose and lavender tentacles in search of food. Lobsters anticipating danger wave their antennae. Sponges dot sandy bottoms, and staghorn coral clusters simulate underwater forests.
The Dry Tortugas is a great place for kids to have fun while discovering and learning about nature and history at the same time! There are many activities on the island and in the water. You can snorkel the majestic and colorful reefs off the shores of the island, observe the park’s unique birds and wildlife, explore Fort Jefferson and the moat surrounding it, and much more.
The Museum is a free attraction located in Key West’s Historic Seaport, known as the “Bight”. Exhibits include an 11-foot diameter scale model of Fort Jefferson, an interactive photo mural that explores the history of the Bight and a Junior Ranger Exploration Station that allows children to get hands-on with and learn about the natural resources of the Dry Tortugas.