While most travelers believe the Florida Keys come to an end at Key West, 69 miles farther west you'll find seven tiny islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park. These islands retain an air of rich wildness and history unmatched anywhere else in the Keys. Discovered in 1513 by Ponce de León, the Tortugas were named for the sea turtles that still cruise the waters today. In the mid-1800s, Fort Jefferson was built on Garden Key to protect America's shipping lanes. Today, the fort still towers two stories over the Gulf waters, providing a photographic centerpiece in these subtropical isles.
Daytime temperatures in the late spring and summer often exceed 90 degrees F. During the summer, winds are usually calm, creating truly hot afternoons. The heat generates periodic thunderstorms, so come prepared for brief bouts of wind and rain. Winter temperatures are typically mild, with lows rarely dipping much below 50 degrees F, but storms and high winds are more frequent during the winter months.
The Dry Tortugas provides a glimpse of the Florida Keys from yesteryear and offers photo opportunities ranging from seascapes to long-lens bird photography to underwater coral gardens and more. The centerpiece of Garden Key is Fort Jefferson. At times, the late-evening light makes the old brickwork of the fort glow. In the parade ground, old powder magazines make grand subjects against a backdrop of gnarled buttonwood trees, while the archways of the fort's interior are an architectural photographer's dream.
Every spring, thousands of migrant birds stop over at the Tortugas on their way north. On a typical spring day, it's not unusual to encounter numerous species of songbirds, raptors and wading birds, along with the year-round seabird residents. Serene flight shots are afforded as magnificent frigate birds and pelicans slowly soar on sea breezes above the fort. Every year, some 70,000 sooty terns pack Bush Key as they come to nest. Although their nesting grounds are closed to avoid disturbing the birds, they're easily photographed as they perch along the beach.
Seascape images on the Tortugas can be captured nearly any place you point a lens. Palm trees and buttonwoods sway gently on the sandy beaches, framing crystalline waters. Throughout the day, the sun illuminates the water in a brilliant blue radiance. In the evening, sailboats find anchorage and make stunning silhouettes against the twilight sky.
If you have an underwater camera or housing, prospects aren't limited to the terrestrial world. Surrounding the fort is an entire community of coral, fish and seagrass beds. Patch reefs dot the sandy bottom, where you'll find a kaleidoscope of colors as rainbow-hued fish dart in and out of intricately shaped coral.
Two ferries and one seaplane service run daily trips from Key West. For the best light, plan on camping so that you'll be there for sunrise and sunset. Due to limited park resources, camping is occasionally restricted by park service officials, so contact the park prior to your trip.
Although the park is accessible any time of the year, spring and fall are the best seasons, as the weather is usually favorable and bird migrants are generally present. Summer typically has nice, but hot weather. Winter temperatures are balmy, but frequent storms may put a damper on your trip.
Contact: Dry Tortugas National Park, (305) 242-7700, www.nps.gov/drto.
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