In August 2014, we were fortunate enough to dive in a hidden treasure within the Gulf of Mexico. The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is situated ~115 miles directly south of the Texas/Louisiana coast. Encompassing 56 sq. miles (36,000 acres), the sanctuary contains incredible reef systems that are absolutely teaming with life. After an overnight trip in calm seas aboard the M.V. Fling, we had arrived.
The first stop of the journey was on the West bank of the sanctuary. Although we were just scratching the surface of exploration with two 80-foot dives, the west bank sits in 135 m (443 feet) of clear blue water with over 30 m visibility. The water was an inviting 84 ° F. Once on the shallow reef head we were able to immediately identify several species including a single puffer fish, barracuda, star and brain coral, and eight lionfish. Unfortunately, the lionfish were not a welcome sight. As an invasive species their presence on the reef does more harm than good (Lionfish: Invasive Predator of the Deep). On the second dive we learned an important lesson on bringing back-up equipment when in the middle of an ocean voyage. Andy’s dive computer malfunctioned and was rendered unusable. Because we dive with a particular set-up, our dive computers are simply used as a bottom timer; air pressure is monitored via a separate submersible pressure gauge (SPG). Lucky for us, we were able to continue with our dives as I assumed the role of dive leader.
After two dives we moved 12 miles to the East bank. On our way we took the opportunity to dive on an offshore oilrig platform, Apache HI 389. Looking at the rig from above the water you only get a partial view of its enormity; it sits in 135m (~400 feet) of clear blue water. What is above the water does not compare with that which lies below. I have to admit I was more than a little intimidate and I am not sure why. The vast openness of the platform made it hard to maintain a point of reference. Any apprehension I may have had quickly faded away when I got to finally see my first wild shark. 3 m (8 foot) silky sharks, in all of their beauty, swam cautiously among us. What a surreal experience! To add to the excitement there was a huge loggerhead sea turtle. The framework of the rig was completely covered with tube sponges, fuzzy hydroids, and octocorals. Unbelievable!
Leaving the oilrig, we continued our journey to the East bank. Similarly to the west bank, the east bank has a maximum depth of 145 m (476 feet). Our first dive was on a 70-foot reef system exposing large boulder coral, a variety of fish species, spiny sea stars, and once again lionfish. We spent the majority of this dive getting orientated with our surroundings in preparation to dive this spot again in a few hours in the dark. Promptly, at 20:30, we jumped off a perfectly good boat in the middle of the ocean to investigate how things change once the sun goes down.
The night dive was quite daunting, but simply remarkable. As we surveyed the boulder coral and tube sponges we noticed it looked as though it was gently snowing under water. Not realizing it until much later, we had the good fortune to swim through a coral spawning event. Although the mass release of sperm and eggs would not happen until four days later, a few individuals will release their gametes ahead of schedule; we certainly were not complaining. After observing several very sleepy fish we called it a day, or in this case an evening, ending our dive back on the boat where warm brownies and vanilla ice cream was waiting. Under an unbelievable crystal clear sky, we fell fast asleep on the observation deck gazing at the Milky Way.
While we slept, our boat made its way to the last stop of our journey, Stetson bank. I have to admit, after five dives in less than 24 hours, my ears were not looking forward to the early morning dive. Not one to pass up a new dive experience, I suited up, put my regulator in my mouth, and took the long stride into calm seas. Having already had some incredible dives, it was very unexpected that Stetson bank was more beautiful than I could have imagined. Our two dives at this site saw us reaching 91 feet of the maximum 59 m (194 feet). The wildlife that called Stetson home absolutely took my breath away. Once down the mooring line, we made our way to a drop off where we were greeted by Southern rays! I wish I could find the words to properly convey what I felt when I saw these majestic creatures swim by, but I cannot. I was simply overwhelmed by their beauty and grace. So much so that I almost missed the sandbar shark that was checking us out. Once my heart recovered from the excitement of the rays, we set about to search the rest of the bank. Nestled among tube, barrel, and vase sponges on this rocky cliff face we found spotted eels, blue tangs, trunkfish, cowfish, butterfly fish, wrasse, cleaner crabs, angelfish, and a giant spiny lobster. There was so much life that we humbly could not take it all in. As we were once again escorted to the surface by our self-appointed barracuda chaperone, we completed our last two dives completely awestruck. Even though we didn’t get to see the large pelagics like whale sharks or manta rays that frequent the area this time of year, we were certainly not disappointed. In fact, we were already planning our trip back next year before the boat got back to port.