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Trip Report - Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary - July 2014 - By David Todd

Recently I had a chance to dive on some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world off the coast of Galveston, Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf is not known for it’s pristine waters. With two-thirds of the US draining into it, it tends to be muddy, filled with oil and gas platforms and wouldn’t be most people’s first choice when searching for a dive destination.

Those folks are missing out.

The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, one of thirteen Marine Sanctuaries administered by NOAA, contains 350 acres of some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world, with up to 55% live coral coverage. To put this in perspective, the coral coverage in the Caribbean averages in the teen percentages.

The reefs at Flower Garden and Stetson Banks are the Northern-most tropical reefs in the continental US and are part of the US’s National Marine Sanctuary system. The nearest tropical reefs are 400 miles south in Mexico.

Since they range from 80 to 110 miles offshore, they don’t get a lot of traffic from divers, in fact there is only one regularly scheduled live-aboard that services the area. Leaving from Freeport, Texas, about an hour from Galveston, The MV Fling holds and up to thirty divers and does two and three day trips to introduce folks to the “Texas Caribbean.”

You board at night and the vessel steams through the night to get out to these gorgeous reefs.

This trip is not for the faint of heart. It is somewhat advanced diving, both because of the depth of the reefs, average 65-75 feet for the top of the reefs and the variable strong currents that can occur at the bottom, mid water and at the surface.

Water entrances and exits are somewhat athletic, with a 6-foot giant stride entry and a trailing line exit to the ladder that can feel like a bit of a Nantucket Sleigh Ride when the surface currents are up. Also the dive masters on this boat are very thorough in their safety and site briefing, but they do not accompany you on your dives. You will want to be comfortable in your abilities to dive there.

Winter is the time for schooling Hammerheads and occasional Tiger sharks, but during our summer visit we were treated to Mantas and a school of 7 30+-foot Whale Sharks. Great Barracudas and large jacks accompanied us on every dive, sometimes in schools of over 100 fish.

In general, the Flower Garden Banks reefs are large colonies of coral of 25 different species, populated with large snapper, masses of Creolefish and grunts and an occasional Spotted Drum and other exotics as well as a host of gulf invertebrates from huge sponges to slate pencil urchins.

Stetson’s rocky terrain is often described as a moonscape; It’s upswept rocky ridges are home to large schools of Vermillion Snapper, Queen Conchs, the rare Golden version of the Spotted Trunkfish and a resident Sandbar shark, that we were lucky enough to watch in hunting mode.

Night dives at Stetson were equally as fascinating as the day, with all of the nocturnal animals like Beaded Sea Cucumbers, sea urchins, Slipper Lobsters and decorator crabs foraging over the reef while the day fish slept. We had to take care to not spotlight the sleeping fish in order to keep them safe from the hungry jacks that opportunistically use divers lights as a hunting tool.

In addition to the Flower Garden Banks and Stetson Banks, most trips also dive on an oil platform or two. This is truly a spectacular experience, as these massive steel structures form artificial reefs and are teaming with life, from tiny macro critters like blennies and gobies, bizarre alien fish like the large scrawled filefish and cowfish to schools of large pelagics like jacks and sharks. In fact, we had a great several minute visit from a curious Silky Shark while hanging on our safety stop at Platform High Island 389 which is known as one of the top ten oil platform dives in the world.

Needless to say, there were amazing opportunities for photography and videography on this trip. From big animals to macro it was there. However, I was there on a biological survey trip with a group of marine educators and photography took back seat to our surveying activities.

I was able to shoot a bit of video in which you can get a glimpse of some of the life there.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary - Sony RX 100-II 60p Underwater Video Test from Optical Ocean Sales on Vimeo.

I am looking forward to getting back to the Gardens for a winter trip and I will definitely take my camera on every dive next time!

Equipment Used:

  • Sony Rx100 - II
  • Sea and Sea MDX RX100 Housing
  • Fisheye Fix 2k Video Light
  • I-Das arms and Tray

Links:

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Fling Charters

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