Texas Traveler: Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

I took a Dramamine Thursday evening after boarding a boat anchored in the coffee-colored water of the Freeport Harbor Channel. When I woke up the next morning I was surrounded by water so clear you could see the coral 70 feet below the surface. At 7 a.m., before the sun was above the horizon, I wiggled into my wetsuit, set up all my gear, and jumped into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Tourists pay tons of money to fly to places like Cozumel, stay in resorts on the beach, often diving with guides of dubious education and certification. But many scuba divers are unaware that the Texas Gulf Coast is home to one of the best dive spots in the world -- the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, which may single-handedly break the stereotype that the Gulf is America's dirty bathtub.

Located about 100 miles south of the Texas/Louisiana border, the Flower Garden Banks are a geological anomaly. The sanctuary consists of three salt domes, each peaking at a depth of about 60 feet. The domes are separated and surrounded by miles of open ocean as deep as 500 feet in some places. The shallow depth (which sunlight can reach) and warmth of the water create a perfect habitat for coral to grow.

The sanctuary's two coral reefs, the East Bank and the West Bank, were signed into protected status in 1992 by President Bush. In 1996 Clinton added the third dome, called Stetson Bank, to the sanctuary's protected area. Stetson Bank's depth is a bit deeper than the East and West banks, and the water temp is slightly cooler, which means very little coral can grow there, but the area is home to a massive sponge colony and has an unusual rugged moonscape consisting of spires and cliffs. It is an excellent place to see large sealife including sharks, rays and turtles.

Most dive shops in Houston book trips to the Flower Garden, which take place almost weekly via Gulf Diving LLC, who operate the live-aboard boat the M/V Fling. Other boats make occasional trips to the Flower Garden Banks, but the Fling is the only vessel with regular service to the sanctuary.

A typical three-day trip leaves Thursday night from Freeport, arriving at the sanctuary overnight, so that first thing Friday morning the diving can begin. The best way to describe a trip aboard the Fling is "Eat, sleep, dive, repeat." Even with mandatory 2-and-a-half hour intervals, it's possible to do five dives a day on both Friday and Saturday (including night dives), plus two on Sunday before the boat heads home. Our trip was about $650, which includes everything (more food than you can eat, tanks, air refills and accommodations on the boat) except rental gear. Four-day and two-day trips are also available.

The coolest thing about a Flower Garden trip is the variety of dives available. Almost every dive takes place at a separate mooring, and Stetson Bank is so vastly different from the reefs. The few small rigs that were operating in the area when it was declared a sanctuary were allowed to remain, so if the weather is good the Fling will tie up to a rig for a dive in open water as deep as 400 feet. Keep an eye on that depth gauge!

The Flower Garden is such an important natural treasure (it's one of the healthiest reefs in the Gulf) that researchers and professional nature photographers are often among the 30 or so passengers on board any given Fling trip. Endangered loggerhead sea turtles and whale sharks (the largest fish on earth, though not endangered, is considered vulnerable) are common, and posters are plastered all over the boat asking divers to report sightings to researchers.

Texas Traveler's trip took place during an especially important natural event, the massive annual spawning of coral, which typically happens only one night a year. The Flower Gardens is supposed to be one of the best spots in the world to watch this mass orgy of hermaphroditic procreation. When the brain coral and star coral begin to spawn, it sets off a hormonal chain reaction that alerts other species, such as barrel sponges, to spawn too. Soon, the water is thick with pink BB-sized egg-and-sperm packages called gametes, which percolate to the surface. You can actually smell in the air when the spawning has begun. As our dive guide Neal said, "It smells like sex."

For more photos from the dive, click here.

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