Snorkel and Swim
With less than 1% of Dry Tortugas National Park being dry ground, the best way to see this remarkable national treasure is by getting in the water. Dry Tortugas National Park is situated at the southwest corner of the Florida Keys reef system, the third largest in the world. Due to the remote location, and easterly flowing gulf current just south of the park, you are sure to discover a much greater abundance of marine life and often much larger versions than anywhere else in the Florida Keys.
Visitors arriving to Garden Key by way of the commercial ferry or seaplane will be able to explore a variety of unique underwater habitats and cultural artifacts.
Historic Coaling Pier Pilings - In the late 1800s the US Navy built coaling warehouses and piers to refuel their ships. Eventually a particularly strong hurricane saw to the destruction of these structures and the Navy decided not to rebuild them. Fortunately for the visitor today, the pilings these piers were built upon did survive and offer an excellent opportunity to see some of the parks larger marine animals. The shelter created by the pilings, mixed with a deep drop off into the dredged channel, attract large groupers, tarpon, barracudas, and the occasion shark. You can also expect to see a variety of smaller fish and colorful coral living on and around these pilings.
Moat wall – In order to protect Fort Jefferson from an amphibious assault, and to add protection from the rough waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a wall was built around the fort creating a moat in between the fort and the moat wall. While swimming in the moat is prohibited, swimming around the moat wall is a wonderful way to discover some of the great cultural artifacts and superlative marine life in the park. Visitors can expect to see anything from reef squid, cement barrels, nurse sharks, anchor chains, hogfish, and maybe even the endangered American crocodile that lives in the waters of the park.
Coral heads – Located at the edge of swim area are some of Gardens Keys largest and most well preserved coral heads. These coral heads grow so massive that you cannot swim over top of them. Here you will see excellent examples of both stony and soft corals. Along with the coral formations, you will also find a variety of colorful reef fish including parrot fish, angel fish, triggerfish damselfish and others.
Visitors arriving to the National Park with their own boat will be able to visit other areas of the park as well. The following are some of the more popular swim and snorkel areas away from Garden Key.
Little Africa Reef - Located just a few yards off the western shore of loggerhead key is a remarkable coral formation aptly named Little Africa because the corals grow in a shape that resembles the continent of Africa when looking down on the reef from the air. This coral formation is similar to the coral heads found at Garden Key, only much larger.
Windjammer Wreck - One of the most popular and easily accessible shipwrecks in the park is located just south of loggerhead key and has a mooring ball provided for day use only. Commonly referred to as the windjammer wreck, the Avanti was a steel hulled sailing vessel that ran aground on the loggerhead reef in the early 1900s. Situated in approximately 20' of water, this wreck makes a wonderful snorkel site. You can expect to find plentiful coral growing on the wreck, a variety of reef fish, and possibly a goliath grouper hiding in the hull.
Things to keep in mind
Look but don't touch! All coral, reef fish, and cultural artifacts are protected. You should not fear an attack from the marine wildlife, but you need to keep a lookout to make sure YOU don't bump into them. Not only will an accidental brush up against the coral probably kill it, you may be bumping into any number of potentially dangerous animals, include fire coral, jellyfish, sea urchins, or the exotic venomous lionfish.
Did You Know?
Fort Jefferson served for a time as a remote prison facility. One of its most famous inmates was none other than Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of President Lincoln. Mudd was incarcerated on the Dry Tortugas for only four years, from 1865 to 1869.