Diving at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, Texas - Part 2

Sanctuary Status

In 1992, the Flower Gardens area was designated the United States of America's tenth National Marine Sanctuary. This precious habitat is now protected by extremely strict federal regulations governing fishing, discharges, anchoring, and oil and gas exploration and production. The nation has certainly taken steps to ensure that this magnificent area is preserved in its current and pristine condition.
 
The charter boats ferrying divers out to the Flower Gardens, usually 90- to 100-foot custom live-aboards, depart from Freeport, Texas, making the seven-hour run at night while their passengers sleep. Most trips include two to four days of diving, with a stop at Stetson Bank, the third bank welcomed, in October 1996, into the sanctuary's protected status. At this one-acre outcropping 30 miles northwest of the West Flower Gardens, divers find patches of star corals, a few mounds of convoluted brain corals, and a small field of knobby Madracis corals. But there's not enough coral cover to qualify it as a true coral reef. Instead of the limestone base of a coral reef, Stetson, which scientists have determined is geologically younger than the Flower Gardens, has a fine sand and clay base densely packed into sedimentary rock.

An Underwater Moon

Most of the diving at Stetson takes place around a series of sponge-cloaked pinnacles that are randomly spaced on the reef just inside its northern drop-off. Some of these risers are wide and stubby, while others are like pillars more than 15 feet high and rich with sponges, fire coral, and tube worms.
 
Prudent divers keep their distance from the deceptively smooth-looking fire coral, which is usually beige or mustard colored. Over the hard skeleton of this coral, minuscule hairlike polyps extend from tiny pores. The polyps come in two varieties, sensory/stinging and feeding; it's the stinging polyps that divers remember. Brushing against a fire coral can cause painful welts and a rash that can last for days. Avoid the bristle worms, too. These foot-long crawlers look like fuzzy caterpillars, but the white tufts along their sides pack quite a wallop; they're loaded with stinging cells.
 
Hard bottom ridges, terraces, and gullies make other areas of Stetson look like the surface of the moon. Unlike the moon, however, Stetson is brimming with life. French angelfish the size of serving plates and at least four varieties of butterflyfish flutter around the pinnacles, while scorpionfish lurk in twos and threes, camouflaged against the algae-covered rocks. Near the pinnacles, neon gobies, small wrasses, and shrimp set up cleaning stations for the rock hinds and blue tangs.
 
Common invertebrates at Stetson include urchins, sea cucumbers, arrowcrabs, and lobster. Less-common invertebrates, the precious cowries and black sea hares, inundate Stetson every June. Sea hares, cousins of squid and octopus, look like 10-inch snails with rabbit ears. Most Caribbean varieties are pale or olive colored with dark, ringlike spots. The black sea hares emit a purple cloud of ink when distressed. Inside Stetson's drop-offs, patient divers may see tiny sailfin blennies flare their large dorsal fins. Dense schools of creole-fish and chromis fill the water column overhead.

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