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Dry Tortugas National Park

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Key West, FL, United States
Key West , Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park is a national park in the USA about 68 statute miles (109 km) west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The park preserves Fort Jefferson and the seven Dry Tortugas islands, the westernmost and most isolated of the Florida Keys. The archipelago's coral reefs are the least disturbed of the Florida Keys reefs.

The park is noted for abundant sea life, tropical bird breeding grounds, colorful coral reefs and legends of shipwrecks and sunken treasures. The park's centerpiece is Fort Jefferson, a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere,and is composed of over 16 million bricks. Dry Tortugas is unique in its combination of a largely undisturbed tropical ecosystem with significant historic artifacts. The park is accessible only by seaplane or boat and averages 60,000 visitors each year. Activities include snorkeling, picnicking, birdwatching, camping, scuba diving, saltwater fishing and kayaking.

Geography

The Dry Tortugas are a small archipelago of coral islands located about 70 miles (110 km) west of Key West, Florida. They represent the westernmost extent of the Florida Keys, though several reefs and submarine banks continue westward outside the park, beyond the Tortugas. The park area is more than 99% water. The seven major islands, all within the park, are, roughly from west to east, Loggerhead Key, Garden Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Hospital Key, Middle Key and East Key.The Park is bordered on the east, south and west by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and on the northwest by the Tortugas Ecological Reserve.Total land area within the park is 104 acres (42 ha). The park is in a tropical maritime climate, with rainy seasons coinciding with hurricane season from May to October, and a drier season from November through April. The area is heavily influenced by frequent hurricanes and tropical storms. Even with exposure to tropical systems the Tortugas are among the driest places in Florida, with an annual precipitation of about 49 inches (120 cm). There is little temperature variation, with high temperatures in summer around 90 F (32 C) and low temperatures in winter around 66 F (19 C).
The northern and western portions of the park, including the central island group, were designated a 46-square-mile (120 km2) "research natural area" on January 19, 2007, in which no marine life may be taken, nor may vessels anchor. Vessels wishing to moor in the research natural area must use designated mooring buoys or docks. About 54 percent of the park remains open for fishing.

History

The first European to see the Dry Tortugas was Juan Ponce de Leon, who visited on June 21, 1513. Ponce de Leon caught 160 sea turtles there and subsequently referred to the islands as the "Tortugas" (turtles). They are called Dry owing to the absence of surface fresh water on the island. The archipelago includes a high concentration of historically significant shipwrecks dating from the 17th century to the present.The Dry Tortugas were a significant American naval base from Colonial times to the early 20th century, providing a sheltered anchorage and coaling station through the Spanish-American War.

Florida was acquired from Spain by the United States in 1822. The Dry Tortugas were seen as a strategic point for the control of the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico. Work on a lighthouse on Garden Key started in 1825. Planning for a fortification began almost immediately, and construction started in 1847. In 1856 work on a new, more powerful lighthouse on Loggerhead Key was started to replace the Garden Key light.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson is a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. It is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere,and is composed of over 16 million bricks.

Park history

Comprising 47,125 acres (19,071 ha), 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 redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992 by an act of Congress.Dry Tortugas is presently managed by the staff of Everglades National Park.The park was established to protect the island and marine ecosystems of the Dry Tortugas, to preserve Fort Jefferson and submerged cultural resources such as shipwrecks, and to allow for public access in a regulated manner.
During the Federal government shutdown of 1995 and 1996, Dry Tortugas was closed along with all other national parks. Seeing this as having a damaging effect on their tourism-dependent economy, the residents of Key West, Florida raised money to keep Dry Tortugas open. The effort was inspired by the Smithsonian Institution, which raised private donations to keep its museums open during the shutdown.

Ecology

The Dry Tortugas are classified as a borderline sub-tropical-tropical ecosystem, hosting species that do not breed or are uncommon anywhere else in the continental United States.

When a cold front along Florida wiped out 96% of branching coral in 1976-77, once extensive branching coral formations became rubble fields.The Dry Tortugas National Park now consists of patch reef and branching coral rubble.

Birds

Dry Tortugas National Park has an official bird list of 299 species. Of these, only eight species frequently nest within the park: Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Masked Booby, Roseate Tern, Bridled Tern, and Mourning Dove.The park features the only nesting colonies of Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Magnificent Frigatebird, and Masked Booby in the contiguous United States.

Birdwatching activity peaks each spring (usually April) when dozens of migratory bird species can pass through the park in a single day. Many birds land inside the parade grounds of Fort Jefferson where they are often observed at close range. Common migratory warblers include the Northern Parula, American Redstart, Prairie Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, and Cape May Warbler, with more than 20 additional warbler species having shown up at least once. Several raptor species as well as Cattle Egrets are often seen hunting songbirds. Until early 2013 a small freshwater fountain existed beneath several seaside mahoe and buttonwood trees, and was the only freshwater source for many miles. Maintenance issues necessitated its removal, but a replacement water barrel is scheduled for installation in the fall of 2013. Each year several bird guides offer tours of Dry Tortugas National Park during April and early May when daily bird lists can often reach 100 or more species.

Exotic species

An active eradication program has resulted in the removal of Casuarina trees and agave from Loggerhead Key, by cutting and herbicide treatment.

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