|In the heat of the August night, the corals of the Flower Garden Banks engage in a mass spawning event.|
Some 110 miles off the Texas coast is a reef that just doesn't belong there. It's a happy accident created ages ago when geologic forces caused three plateaus to bulge out of the flat, sandy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and rise into the rich ocean current spinning around the edge of the Gulf.
The area, now known as the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, is the northernmost coral reef system in the continental United States. Corals require a just-right combination of temperature, water clarity and sunlight to grow, and the Flower Gardens managed to develop within a narrow threshold for reef survival--creating a unique dive environment in the process.
Texas and Louisiana divers, who make the most of this world-class dive site in their backyard, don't waste much time wondering why or how it happened--they'd rather be under water counting their blessings. In that spirit, we offer our list of 10 reasons to love the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.
Reason #1--Mass Coral Spawning
The bizarre phenomenon of mass coral spawning occurs throughout the Caribbean, but scientists generally agree that the "big bang" at the Flower Garden Banks is more intense than anywhere else. If you want to be front and center for the action, there's no better place to be than here on the eighth night after the August full moon--at 9:15 p.m., to be exact. That's when seven different species participate in a mass orgy that resembles an upside-down snowstorm. Billions of BB-size bundles of gametes erupt from coral polyps and gradually float to the surface where they combine to form new corals.
The event attracts teams of scientists and curious divers, so already scarce space on dive boats is limited. Book early.
Reason #2--Winter Hammerhead Sharks and Eagle Rays
Every year from December to early April, hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) leave the cold inshore waters to feed in the warmer Gulf Stream eddies that wash over the East and West Flower Garden Banks. It's not unusual to see dozens of dorsal fins slicing the surface as you make your giant stride entry. Spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) also congregate at these reefs during the winter months, cruising through in squadrons of a half dozen or more.
Seeing hammerheads is almost guaranteed but getting out to the site is not. Winter weather brings unstable sea conditions, which occasionally leave boats stranded in port.
Reason #3--Manta Rays
|Manta rays are spotted often enough in the sanctuary that divers have named individual animals, which are easily identified by their unique body blotches.|
Consider the Flower Gardens before you shell out several grand for a Pacific trip dedicated to manta encounters. Manta rays (Manta birostris) are seen at the Gardens year-round and divers have nicknames for the "regulars," easily identified by their unique body blotches. These gentle plankton feeders appear when least expected and often entertain photographers and videographers with soaring maneuvers and barrel rolls. Their size, shape and behavior make them one of nature's most inspiring creatures. Mobula rays (Mobula hypostoma), a smaller cousin of the manta, are also seen throughout the year.
Reason #4--Whale Sharks
Divers will flock to far-flung islands on the hope of glimpsing a whale shark (Rhincondon typus), but the Flower Gardens offer just as much potential for encounters with the biggest fish in the sea. Whale sharks are spotted at all three reefs throughout the summer. Sometimes these gentle giants cruise straight through the reef without ever slowing down, and other times they stop and circle the boat slowly for an hour or more, allowing snorkel encounters.
Reason #5--Silky Sharks
|Sleek and wild, packs of young silky sharks prowl the reefs and nearby offshore platforms.|
Every fall to early winter, three- to four-foot-long juvenile silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) congregate at the natural gas platform near the East Flower Garden reef. Gas and oil platforms throughout the Gulf serve as nurseries for these feisty, yet vulnerable, young oceanic animals, and divers often encounter individual silkys venturing through the reef. The real action, though, is found at the nearby Mobil 389 gas platform.
Reason #6--The Third Reef: Stetson Bank
Tiny Stetson Bank may not be much larger than a couple of baseball fields, but it's a big league hit with fish-watchers and photographers. Redspotted hawkfish, sailfin blennies, marbled grouper and spotted scorpionfish are some of the impressive fish seen at Stetson. The sponge-covered pinnacles, steep walls, ridges, gullies and moonscape interior make Stetson a diving experience completely different from the East and West Banks.
Reason #7--Unique Fish
|Among the rare fish species found in the sanctuary is the golden smooth trunkfish.|
The Flower Gardens host more than 175 species of fish, not a huge number compared to more tropical locations, but the number of unusual fish species found here is impressive. Take the golden smooth trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter). Instead of the typical white-spotted black body, this variety of the smooth trunkfish is a brilliant gold with neon blue spots. And there's the Townsend angelfish, the seldom-seen hybrid offspring of queen and blue angelfish. The Flower Garden sanctuary is one of the few areas in the Atlantic where both blue and queen angelfish are abundant, increasing the odds of cross-species breeding. The knobbed porgy, the yellowtail reeffish, and the tiny tusked goby are other hard-to-find species readily found in the sanctuary.
Reason #8--Healthy Corals
|The sanctuary protects the habitats of marine life great and small. Meek and mild, a wary tesselated blenny peeks out of its hole.|
The 21 species of coral found in the sanctuary display remarkable vigor. Scientists claim the coral coverage on the East and West Flower Garden Banks is more than twice as dense as that in the Florida Keys. That means the coral is packed in tight, and the sight of dense reef stretching for as far as you can see under water is one you won't soon forget. But the really important fact is the coral at the Flower Gardens has not deteriorated in the 20 years it's been monitored. The distance from shore protects the reefs from crowds of fishermen and divers, and the effects of coastal development.
Reason #9--No Planes, No Passports, No Hassle
This is one world-class dive site you don't have to raid junior's college fund, take weeks off from work and trek halfway around the planet to see. There are no customs declarations, passport requirements, currency hassles or language barriers.
The live-aboard boats that visit the sanctuary are all based in Freeport, Texas, less than a 90-minute drive from Houston. Boarding time for the standard two-day, eight-dive weekend cruise is 9 p.m. Friday night, and you'll be back on land by Sunday evening. Divers from Texas and Louisiana typically make the trip without missing a day of work, and just about everyone else can fit the trip into a long weekend.
The other problem with those exotic overseas trips is the huge dent they leave in your wallet. Not here. Two-day cruises start at about $300 per person. Granted, the accommodations are a little spartan, but the price is hard to beat.
Bonus! Five More Reasons to Love the Flower Gardens
- No Crowds. The remote location and limited number of dive operators means your chances of seeing more than one other boat on the reef are small.
Dive in: Flower Garden Banks
|Ages ago, geologic forces made the earth's crust bulge, giving rise to the sandstone and claystone formations that are the Flower Garden Banks and Stetson Bank. These 3-D images show the stark contrast of the plateaus against the featureless Gulf bottom.|
You can dive the Flower Garden Banks year-round, though winter storms may leave you stranded at the dock. The peak summer season runs from May through October, with August and September considered the best months for diving.
80F-84F in the summer, when most divers need only light exposure protection; 66F-72F in the winter--bring a 5mm suit and hood, maybe a dry suit if you get cold.
Varies from 50 to 100-plus feet, depending on the season and conditions.
Expect an average profile of 70 to 90 feet on most dives. Currents are generally limited to the top 40 feet of water, and a combination of side lines and down lines allow you to negotiate them with relative ease.
All operate from Freeport, Texas. Rinn Boats (operates the M.V. Fling and M.V. Spree), (409) 233-4445; Sea Searcher II, (800) 396-DIVE.
Dive Tips and Gear Techniques
While all boats visiting the Flower Gardens have adequate dive facilities, including onboard compressors, you may be responsible for all your dive gear, including tanks and weights. In addition to the following list, ask your operator what items you'll need to bring.
Be sure your gear bag includes:
- Your dive computer - Strongly recommended to get the most bottom time out of repetitive dives.
- Gloves - For the rig dive.
- The right neoprene - You'll want a full 5mm wetsuit and hood for the winter trips; a thin wetsuit or Lycra skin for the summer.
- Safety sausage, whistle and air horn - All a must when diving 100 miles offshore.
- Dive lights - A primary, a backup and a tank light for night dives.
Getting There in Style
The three live-aboards that visit the sanctuary are all 90- to 100-foot converted crew boats that are comfortable, but spartan. Divers share bunk-room accommodations, heads and shower facilities in addition to sea stories, photo tips and their favorite videos to pass the time on the five-hour run to and from shore.
To make the voyage more comfortable, bring:
- Soft luggage - Space is at a premium, so pack light and use easy-to-stow soft luggage.
- Seasonally appropriate topside clothes - The dress code is casual, so you don't need much. However, you will want a light jacket or windbreaker in winter; a hat and sunscreen in summer.
- A towel or shammy - For showers and taking care of dive gear.
- Seasickness medication - Just in case.
- A favorite videotape - For the five-hour ride to and from shore.
- Spending money - Or a credit card for sodas, alcoholic beverages and souvenir items not included in the package.
- All personal items - Boats do not sell medicines or hygiene items.