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Blending history with undisturbed natural artifacts, Dry Tortugas is like a little sacred place that was discovered by colonialists who had the foresight not to interfere with the area’s ecosystem. In 1976, it was ratified as part of the Everglades and Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve, which falls under the guardianship of UNESCO. Tortugas means “Turtles” and “Dry” refers to the fact that there is no fresh water on these islands, and this we know from the diaries of 16th century European explorer Juan Ponce de León, who documented that he caught some 160 turtles here when he landed here in 1513.
In 1971 one of Dry Tortugas’s most famous shipwrecks was discovered off the coast of Loggerhead Key, one of the park’s islands. The vessel was only identified in 1990 as a Norwegian vessel which had sunk in the area in 1907 – the reasons for the wreckage are still not known today. There are still parts of it down there, which you can explore when you dive in the area.
Fort Jefferson took nearly 30 years in the 19th century to be built, and in all its hexagonal glory, it is still not finished. When you visit, you will be enthralled by the series of arches and the beautiful brickwork that constitutes this fascinating construction which was designed to protect the harbor, which was at the time one of America’s most important deep water gulfs, and it was also there to assist ships that were seeking refuge from storms or in need of restocking or refitting. If you look at Fort Jefferson from the air, it looks like it is emerging magically from the sea, because it takes up all the available ground on the island of Garden Key.
And the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, built in the 1820s, also has some curious tales to tell. Soon after it was built, it was discovered to have a design flaw, in that one of its doors obscured its visibility to passing ships. While this was addressed over the years, it has been a problematic lighthouse, for technical reasons, which may well explain why the Dry Tortugas National Park is a repository for shipwrecks and the kind of ghost stories that revolve around such histories. And speaking of the spoils of shipwrecks, you can see a lot of the things that have been found deep under the sea, such as cannons, anchors and the like, in the South Florida Collections Management Center. These objects were retrieved from wreckages by the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, which conducts specialist deep sea archaeological research. Indeed, there is a carefully plotted Research National Area around Dry Tortugas’s perimeter, in which the ecological integrity of the area is being explored, together with its possibilities for self-renewal.
The area was first recognized for its heritage potential by President Roosevelt in 1935, when he made it a monument under the Antiquities Act. But reaching much deeper into the area’s history, it is estimated that the archipelago was initially formed some 200 million years ago. The islands are considered as accumulated sediment on the Florida Platform, which is based on carbonate rocks and dolomite, as well as limestone, within which the pristine coral formations have been preserved. The sea around this ancient area is more than 10,000 feet deep.