Visit Dry Tortugas National Park: The Complete Planning Guide for Families

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Quick — where can you experience emerald open water, the Gulf of Mexico, sooty terns (and other birds) and possibly sea turtles — all in one place?

Visit Dry Tortugas National Park for an incredible experience that jumps off from the Florida Keys. At only 100 square miles, the park mainly contains open water (à la Biscayne National Park), seven small islands and Fort Jefferson. 

You can’t drive to Dry Tortugas, so we’ll go over your options for getting there. (Don’t worry; they’re all fun ways to arrive — your kids will never forget it.) So, let’s dive in with your most comprehensive guide to getting the most out of this action-packed adventure.

National Parks Mom family at the NPS sign for Dry Tortugas National Park, FloridaPin
Our family at Dry Tortugas National Park in front of the NPS entrance sign at Fort Jefferson

What is Dry Tortugas National Park?

Why visit Dry Tortugas National Park? It is one of the smallest and least visited national parks in the United States. It contains:

  • Natural features: Swimming and sightseeing reveal crystalline water, coral reefs and sandy shoals. Dry Tortugas contains no shortage of gorgeous scenery. Just don’t forget your sunglasses and sunblock!
  • Fort Jefferson: A former U.S. military coastal fortress, the fort is the largest brick structure in the Americas. The six-sided building covers 16 acres and contains 16 million handmade bricks. (Only Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Adams in Rhode Island beat it for size.) It’s a treasure trove of history that goes back to the 19th century and the Civil War. Who was its most famous prisoner? Dr. Samuel Mudd was found guilty of involvement in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. A lighthouse was added to Garden Key to warn sailors about the dangerous reefs and shoals in the area. 
  • Sea life: You’ll see birds en masse (including nesting sooty terns if you’re there during the right season), sea turtles and tropical fish among the coral reefs. 
  • Water activities: If you’re interested in kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling, swimming or diving, you can do it here. Keep reading for more great information!

Where is Dry Tortugas National Park?

Dry Tortugas National Park lies 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. You cannot drive to this remote national park, but you can choose a few different ways to get there.

view of Fort Jefferson from the moat wall at Dry Tortugas National Park, FloridaPin

Best Time to Visit Dry Tortugas National Park

The Gulf of Mexico (as it is in most of the lower western hemisphere during this time) is rough from October through January due to hurricane season. Therefore, November through April are the best time to visit Dry Tortugas. 

However, if you check the weather and understand that it may not be ideal during this time of year, you and your family can still take advantage of this incredible national park and its natural beauty.

family on top of Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park, FloridaPin
We visited Dry Tortugas in last March, and the weather was beautiful. Breezy and in the high 70s.

How to Get to Dry Tortugas

How do you get to this remote location?

You must take a seaplane charter, your own boat or the ferry, called the Yankee Freedom Ferry, to get there. The way you get there depends entirely on your preferences. Let’s take a look at each option.

One thing to note: No restaurants, shops or any other services offer food, water or fuel on the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park. You must plan ahead!

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida seen in the distance from the deck of the Yankee Freedom ferry boatPin
visitors to Dry Tortugas NP approaching Fort Jefferson via ferry

Seaplane Charter

You can book a private seaplane charter to get to Dry Tortugas through Seaplane Adventures out of Key West. It’s the quickest way to reach Dry Tortugas but also more expensive than the ferry.

If you’re looking for a memorable experience, strap on a headset and sit in your window seat — everyone gets one, which will thrill your kids! Along the way, you’ll have a good chance of spotting shipwrecks, sharks, dolphins and turtles. Your pilot acts as your personal tour guide through the low-altitude flight. The pilot will guide you through: 

  • The “Flats”: This body of shallow water is part of the National Marine Sanctuary, with marine and bird life with shallow water.
  • Mangrove islands
  • Marquesas Islands: These islands are a coral atoll, a circular group of coral islands.
  • The “Quicksands”: This area is excellent for spotting huge sea turtles.

The seaplane also makes a low pass over Fort Jefferson so you can get a photo from above. Once the seaplane lands, you can spend up to 6.5 hours at Fort Jefferson, depending on the length of the excursion you choose.

visit Dry Tortugas National Park via seaplane! Seaplane parked at Dry Tortugas NPPin
seaplane parked at Dry Tortugas National Park

Seaplane Cost

How much does the seaplane cost? As of this writing, we list the type of excursion, length and costs below.

Type of ExcursionLength of ExcursionAdultChildren 12 and underChildren under two
Half-day excursion Just under four hours, with 2.5 hours of island time at Fort Jefferson$451$360.80Free
Full-day excursion Just under eight hours, with 6.5 hours at Fort Jefferson$792$633.60Free

Park in the Key West International Airport short-term lot with a $19 daily rate or arrive via taxi, Uber or Lyft. Request your driver to go to Signature Flight Support.

seaplane taking off at Dry Tortugas National ParkPin
seaplane leaving Dry Tortugas

Yankee Freedom Ferry

Our trip to Dry Tortugas was in March, and we opted for the Yankee Freedom Ferry over the seaplane or taking our own boat (since we don’t have one, it made that an easy decision 😜). 

You can choose your dates on a calendar, and the calendar tells you whether a certain date is sold out or if it’s getting close to selling out. 

And speaking of selling out, this ferry holds 250 visitors, but it DOES sell out quickly. So for the best chance of visiting this park, book early (i.e. 9-12 months in advance)! We purchased our ferry tickets 9 months ahead of our trip.

Yankee Freedom ferry docked at Dry Tortugas National ParkPin
Yankee Freedom docked at Dry Tortugas

The Yankee Ferry option is markedly cheaper than the seaplane. However, I’m sure that’s a spectacular experience! Keep in mind also that the capacity on a seaplane is just 10 passengers, so it can be hard for a larger family to find availability.

I mentioned earlier that there is no food or water on the island, but the ferry offers a breakfast and lunch menu. And the ferry remains open while docked during your entire stay at Fort Jefferson so that you can access more food/drinks, as well as bathroom facilities.

Regarding food, they do offer a vegetarian and gluten-free lunch aboard. Just tell the cook when you board about your dietary needs.

Your total charges include the national park entrance fee when you book your reservation. You can get a refund if you present a National Park Pass at check-in the morning of your trip.

at ferry terminal where you check in and prepare for boarding the Yankee Freedom ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park at Key West, FLPin
inside the ferry terminal for Yankee Freedom at Key West

Ferry Cost

As of this writing, the costs for the Yankee Freedom Ferry were as follows:

AdultSenior or StudentAdult with National Park PassSenior or Student with National Park PassActive Military or SpouseChildInfant (ages 0-3)
Cost$220$210$205$195$195$165Free
people aboard the Yankee Freedom ferry to Dry Tortugas National ParkPin
our family enjoying the breeze on the front deck of the Yankee Freedom on our way to Dry Tortugas

How to Get To The Yankee Freedom Ferry

The Yankee Freedom departs from the Key West Ferry Terminal, 100 Grinnell Street, in the Historic Seaport. You can park Key West City Parking Garage at 300 Grinnell Street and can check in for the ferry at 7 a.m. on your departure date.

Expert tip: Arrive at port early! You’ll have to fumble with finicky parking ticket machines at the lot, and pay in full in advance (the fee is about $40/day). There’s a short 1.5 block walk to the pier where you’ll check-in for the trip, and get your boarding passes. The earlier you arrive, the better position you’ll get for boarding which is great for snagging a window seat, or a spot on the open decks if that’s where you prefer to sit for the 2 hour journey.

Your Own Boat

Private boats entering Dry Tortugas National Park must first stop at the Garden Key headquarters at Fort Jefferson. A boat permit is not necessary for those simply traveling through the park.

Recreational vessels of any type (kayaks, dinghies, canoes, etc) must obtain boat permits (they don’t cost anything).

You may anchor only in sandy bottoms within one nautical mile of the Garden Key lighthouse, except Special Protection Zones. Anchoring is strictly prohibited in the Research Natural Area (RNA), where mooring buoys are available for a maximum two hours.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida seen in the distance from the deck of the Yankee Freedom ferry boatPin
view of Fort Jefferson from the water

Safety Considerations 

Monitor weather conditions leading up to your trip. The Gulf of Mexico can experience rapid changes in weather, so ensure favorable conditions for your journey.

Share your trip plans with someone who is not on the boat. Provide details about your departure time, route, and expected return. This information can be crucial in case of emergencies.

How to Get There

Plan your route to Dry Tortugas, considering your starting point, fuel availability and weather conditions. Know how to navigate 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.

Equip your boat with proper communication and navigation tools. Have a VHF marine radio, GPS and charts to navigate safely. Check for any updates on navigational aids in the area.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida seen from the deck of the Yankee Freedom ferry boatPin
view of Fort Jefferson as you arrive via boat

Other Transportation Options to Dry Tortugas NP

Since I’m the type of travel planner who is always making sure I’ve found and explored every option while trip planning, before I booked our Dry Tortugas transportation I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing any amazing option that was out there.

Besides the Yankee Freedom, a seaplane via Key West Seaplane Charters, or taking your own personal boat, guess what? THAT’S IT! There aren’t other options/competing companies for a ferry ride or seaplane…there are truly only these couple of options!

Yes, it’s a limited number of options, but in a world where we are usually bombarded by an over-abundance of choices making a decision difficult, I found this kind of refreshing!!

view of Fort Jefferson from the moat wall at Dry Tortugas National Park, FloridaPin

What You Can Do While at Dry Tortugas

When you visit, what are the best things to do?

Camp

Believe it or not, you can camp on Garden Key. Sounds like an extraordinary experience, right? Stargazing, snorkeling, unbelievable sunsets and more! 

Garden Key features a primitive campground just a short walk from the public dock. You cannot reserve the six-person sites. Individual sites can accommodate up to three two-person tents and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Large groups of 10-20 people must secure a reservation. 

However, because you’re in a remote location, you have to plan carefully:

  • Transportation: Getting there is restricted to private vessels, permitted tour guides or commercial ferries. You can keep your boat in a designated area. 
  • Supplies: Bring all necessary supplies, including a tent, fresh water, fuel, ice and food. Only gas camping stoves or charcoal briquettes in campsite BBQ units are allowed; note that compressed gas canisters are not permitted on the ferry. Campers should also bring shelter, cooking supplies, clothing and personal equipment. The park only allows charcoal briquettes in campsite BBQ grills — no wood fires. 
  • Waste disposal: Proper waste disposal is crucial, requiring campers to carry out all trash and garbage upon departure. Store food items in hard-sided containers to protect against rats and crabs. You may encounter rats (yikes!), meaning you must store food and trash in hard-sided containers. Composting toilets should be used strictly for human waste and toilet paper, with toilet lids lowered when not in use. 
  • Water: The National Park Service recommends carrying two gallons of water per person per day, along with an extra day’s food and water supply in case of ferry cancellations. Try to respect and protect park vegetation, avoiding attachment of items to campground trees. You must dispose of gray water from washing dishes below the high tide line at the dinghy beach.
  • Quiet hours: Quiet hours are observed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., discouraging the use of bright lanterns.

What does your campsite include? 

Picnic tables, elevated grills for charcoal fires and hooks to keep items above the ground. The campground provides composting toilets, but campers should use the facilities aboard commercial ferry boats at the dock during specific hours. No public showers are available, and there is no public WiFi, cellular service or electric hook-ups. Battery-powered appliances are recommended.

In other words, if you want a primitive camping experience, you’ve got it! Your kids will never forget it, and neither will you.

Snorkel

Dry Tortugas National Park offers some of North America’s best snorkeling and skin diving, right up against Fort Jefferson’s moat wall. The shallow five-to-15 feet depths make snorkeling an incredible experience — imagine your kids seeing tropical fish, starfish, queen conchs and living coral for the first time! 

You can access complimentary fins, masks and snorkels. However, warn your kids not to touch the corals to prevent damage to the delicate polyps, which makes them susceptible to bleaching and disease. “Look, don’t touch” means something here!

view of Fort Jefferson and a family snorkeling from the moat wall at Dry Tortugas National Park, FloridaPin
My family snorkeling near the fort’s moat wall. Expert tip: If you don’t love snorkeling, you can still get a GREAT view of lots of the marine wildlife simply by walking the moat wall (seen in the shot above)! That’s what I did with one of my kiddos who wasn’t keen to snorkel.

The Yankee Freedom provides snorkelers with fins, masks, snorkels and inflatable life vests (like the kind you’re shown during a flight safety demonstration) to explore the nearby reefs just before the boat pier. There is no additional charge for the snorkel gear.

Expert Tip: There are only 2 changing rooms per gender available at Fort Jefferson. To avoid wasting time waiting in long lines to change when you arrive at Dry Tortugas, board the ferry in the morning already wearing your swimwear.

If you’re a snorkel gear snob (and it’s ok if you are!) then you’ll want to lug your own gear. The equipment they have is “fine” but it’s not amazing. So if you love snorkeling enough that you have your own gear, I’d definitely bring it along.

One popular spot, approximately 75 yards from the western edge of the moat wall, offers an excellent starting point with gorgeous large coral heads, tropical fish, seagrass and various marine life. 

The South Coaling Dock Ruins, with metal pilings from old coaling docks, offer exploration opportunities for experienced snorkelers. In shallower waters near the shore, patches of healthy coral reefs provide havens for marine life and cater to snorkelers of all proficiency levels.

For safety, always use the “buddy system” and swim with a friend, avoiding solo snorkeling. Refrain from disturbing coral reefs, shipwrecks and historic artifacts. Display a dive flag outside the designated snorkel area, check your equipment before starting, and be mindful that weather conditions can impact snorkeling.

family snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park, FloridaPin
my crew snorkeling at Dry Tortugas

Dive

Thinking you might want to SCUBA? Remember, you cannot transport compressed canisters on the ferry or seaplane. If you intend to dive, arrange to arrive via your own boat or a charter vessel to transport all necessary dive gear, including dive tanks.

Swim

Don’t forget your swimsuit! You’ll want to swim here with your family, and there’s plenty where that came from. Don’t forget floaties for the kids if they’re not great swimmers. Or you can use the inflatable life vests provided with the snorkel gear.

Fish

Got an avid fisherman or fisherwoman in your family? If you want to fish at Dry Tortugas, you can, but keep these notes in mind: 

  • Required boat permit: You must secure a boat permit at Garden Key before fishing within Dry Tortugas National Park, which lies within Monroe County, Florida State waters. 
  • No spearfishing or lobstering: Spearfishing and lobstering are strictly prohibited within park waters. Any spearfishing gear must be disassembled and stored away upon entering the park. Using “j” hooks is prohibited; you can only use “circle” hooks. You cannot purchase gear once in the park; you must bring your own.
  • No fishing in the Research Natural Area: You’ll see the boundaries of this area, outlined in large yellow buoys. 
  • Mandatory saltwater fishing license: All anglers aged 16 and above must have one, except for those under 16 or Florida resident seniors over 65. Learn more on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) website. Learn more about catch and release on the Florida Sea Grant site.
  • Locations: Designated fishing locations include the seaplane beach east of the main dock (when the seaplane is absent), the main dock (when the Yankee Freedom is not present), the two westernmost finger piers (when unoccupied) and either dinghy beach, provided that fishing does not occur within 50 feet of the concrete wall of the historic docks and ruins previously used for loading coal. All other areas of Garden Key are off-limits to fishing, except for fishing from a boat within the one-mile Historic Use Area of Garden Key.
laminated poster with fish to watch for at Dry Tortugas National Park, seen on the Yankee Freedom ferryPin
a laminated posted with common fish/aquatic wildlife that can be spotted at Dry Tortugas NP

Paddlesports

You can also explore Dry Tortugas with a kayak or paddleboard — it’s another great way for your family to explore. However, you need to bring your own paddleboard or kayak, and the Yankee Freedom only allows three kayaks on board under 17 feet long.

Since the water is so clear, it’s easy to peer down through clear water to see directly to the seagrass and coral reefs.

You can stick near Garden Key, or if you’re experienced, you can choose longer open water paddles. Bush Key and Long Key are the closest to Garden Key and home to thousands of nesting birds in the spring. Visiting the two islands generally takes a few hours.

Loggerhead Key is three miles west of Garden Key and can take several hours to paddle round trip. Loggerhead is the park’s largest island, offering great snorkeling and nearly empty beaches. This trip involves crossing deep, open water with very strong currents, so it’s not recommended unless you’re a group of expert paddlers/swimmers.

Important Tips and Regulations

You must have a boating permit for all vessels in the park, including kayaks. You can visit the dock house information room to complete this free permit.

Required equipment for any kayak use includes a personal flotation device, a signaling device (typically a whistle and/or hand-held mirror) and a portable VHF radio. Bring these from the mainland — there are no services at the park.

Also check for any protected zone closures, which park rangers can provide.

building housing changing rooms at Dry Tortugas National ParkPin
Check the dock house information station for boating permits. This is also where the 4 changing rooms are located (2 per gender) and where you can rent snorkel gear.

Safety

The visitor is responsible for knowing their equipment and capabilities and having a plan for self-rescue should an emergency occur. Park staff may not always be available for a search and rescue effort.

Park staff may meet you as you arrive to give a briefing on paddling in the park. If no staff meets you, please contact park staff before entering the water to receive the required boating permit and for a briefing before you begin your paddle trip.

Before starting your trip, let a fellow camper know where you are going and an estimated return time. Check the weather, tides, and winds.

You can launch your kayak at the dinghy beach between the main dock and the old south coaling dock.

Explore Fort Jefferson

Landlubbers (and especially landlubbers who love history) will love exploring Fort Jefferson and learning about the history and construction of the fort.

History “Talk” and/or “Tour” for Yankee Freedom Guests

If you arrive via the Yankee Freedom ferry, there is a naturalist guide on the trip who will do some talks during your trip to and from the park while aboard the ferry. Once you get to the park, you’ll have the opportunity to join either a short “talk” with the guide that lasts about 15-minutes inside the fort.

Or, for those who REALLY love history, especially military history will want to stay for the longer “tour” which lasts about 1-hour. During this guided presentation, you’ll learn all kinds of interesting facts about the building of the fort, its uses, military equipment, and more.

One of our kids is a major history buff, so he did the longer history walk, while the rest of the family decided to do the shorter “talk” and then head out to snorkel. I’d recommend most people will likely prefer the shorter “talk” option and then your family can head out to the water.

Both the “talk” and the “tour” are included with your Yankee Freedom ferry ticket. There’s no additional charge for either.

Fort Jefferson Museum and Gift Shop

There is a small gift shop at Fort Jefferson, as well as a museum with a few exhibits. Make sure to take a few minutes to explore both. For those who participate in the national park passport stamp program (my daughter loves this), the gift shop is where you can stamp your book!

For those of you who just want the “I’ve been to Dry Tortugas” t-shirt, or the collectible coins (that’s what my youngest is into), those are both available at the gift shop.

What to Bring to Dry Tortugas National Park

At a minimum, what should you bring to this national park?

  • Photo ID (all adults must have a photo ID to board the Yankee Freedom)
  • Comfortable footwear (I’d recommend Tevas or something similar that you can walk AND wade in, and will dry quickly)
  • Hats
  • Swimsuits
  • Sunglasses
  • Beach towels
  • Dry clothes
  • Sunscreen (use a reef-safe brand like this one)
  • Your camera or phone and an extra battery
  • Light jackets/sweatshirts
  • National Park Passes
  • Snacks, especially if you have allergies or dietary restrictions
  • Water bottles

These are some extra items that I’d recommend bringing as well. They aren’t required, but are certainly nice to have:

  • Snorkel gear (if you prefer your own)
  • Floaties/life vests (if you prefer your own)
  • Paddleboard or kayak (unfortunately, they are not available for rent at the park)
  • Underwater camera (we use a relatively inexpensive one like this)
  • Binoculars for bird watching

Expert Tips & Additional Information To Make the Most of your Family’s Dry Tortugas Day

Here are a couple more FYI’s to help your family make the most of your day at Dry Tortugas. Some I’ve mentioned already:

  • Yankee Freedom Ferry tips:
    • Arrive EARLY to port to get one of the first boarding passes issued. This will ensure you can pick a great spot to sit on the ferry.
    • If you are prone to seasickness (I am, and I feel your pain if you are as well) know that you will be out on the open ocean for an extended period of time if taking the ferry, so prepare ahead of time.
    • It’s a large boat (which helps), and it doesn’t stop (which also helps).
    • Consider using anti-nausea patches or bracelets, taking meclizine or another anti-nausea medication of your choice before departing (it works best if taken BEFORE you start feeling motion-sickness.
    • Alternatively, they sell meclizine on the boat for $1.
    • Another remedy that has worked wonders for motion sickness in our clan is an ice pack held to the back of the neck. Ask the cook in the galley for an ice pack, or some ice if needed.
  • No matter how you get to Dry Tortugas, it’s a long day of travel to get there and back to Key West, so plan accordingly. You will be gone from 7am-5:30pm if you take the ferry to the park. Pack medications, books, games, etc so you’re prepared.
  • Take some cash for tips – you’ll likely want to tip your tour guide if you take a guided tour
  • Don’t forget towels, sunscreen and other sun protection (hats, sunglasses)
  • Wear your bathing suit the morning of your trip. This will save you time standing in a long line that forms for the changing rooms
  • Quick dry clothing and shoes like Tevas that can be worn in the water and dry quickly are really helpful in this park
  • Don’t take tons of valuables if it can be avoided. The only place to “leave” items is at public picnic tables at Fort Jefferson or on board the ferry. As our tour guide said though, they’ve never had a problem with stuff disappearing unless people hide things from themselves 😉
  • If you’re not a big military history buff, then opt for the quicker “talk” in lieu of the longer Fort Jefferson “tour”
  • If you want to see fish and other sealife but aren’t a big fan of swimming/snorkeling/diving, then walk the moat wall around Fort Jefferson. It’s about 4-5′ wide, so it’s not like walking a tightrope. The water is so clear that you’ll see lots of aquatic life without getting wet.
three kids at the NPS sign for Dry Tortugas National Park, FloridaPin
my three kids outside Fort Jefferson

Visit Dry Tortugas National Park for Lifelong Family Memories 

This park is truly an incredible experience, and one of the best places to see crystal clear water and some of the best snorkeling you’ll find in Florida. Give yourself enough time to tour Fort Jefferson and consider how you’ll best use your time for this amazing experience. If you take a sea plane, you may have less time if you don’t opt for full-day tours.

No matter how you get to/from Dry Tortugas, visiting this park will be a big notch on your national parks travel belt. Less than 100,000 people explore this park each year, which pales in comparison to parks like Great Smoky Mountains, or Grand Canyon with their 13 million, and nearly 5 million annual visitors respectively. Despite its appeal, Dry Tortugas is continuously one of the top 10 least visited US national parks!

It’s a place where your family can create lasting memories, and will foster your family’s love for our beautiful US national parks and all their incredible diversity.

Ready to visit Dry Tortugas National Park? If you aren’t planning your trip for a while, pin this information for later! And if you found this article helpful, leave a comment on the pin. That helps others decide whether to use this information, too!

Your complete family planning guide to visit Dry Tortugas National Park! 70-miles off the FL coast, this national park is 99% water, & 100% unforgettable!Pin
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About Heather Thibodeau

Heather Thibodeau is the founder and mom behind nationalparksmom.com.

She and her husband Dave (AKA Tib) are on a mission to travel to as many US national parks with their three kids in tow as they possibly can, doing their best to keep the little ones out in nature and off of screens in an increasingly digital world.

Heather has earned degrees in biology & chemistry from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies), and holds master's and doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Duke University (Go Blue Devils).

Heather is also the creative force behind The Heathered Nest where she shares her love of all things DIY and home decor.

Her work has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Good Housekeeping, This Old House, Today.com, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and more.

1 thought on “Visit Dry Tortugas National Park: The Complete Planning Guide for Families”

  1. Wowwww! This looks absolutely amazing! I hope I get there some day. What a neat place. Visiting from the Love Your Creativity linkup.

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