Divers’ Paradise in the Bay

Divers’ Paradise in the Bay

Just as there are national parks in the United States, so there are also national marine sanctuaries that are open to the public. Approximately 150 miles off the Coast of Galveston Island lay the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. It’s one of the only 14 federally designated underwater areas protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and the only site located in the Gulf of Mexico.

No one is quite sure how the NOAA Flower Garden Banks developed. It’s a jewel in the middle of the Gulf, housing a variety of wildlife more common to areas of the Caribbean. Sitting on salt domes, 23 species of coral grow on these banks. What the coral lacks in variety, it makes up for in beauty and size. Because the sanctuary is farther from shore, only more advanced divers visit the area. The typical dive is between 70 and 90 feet. This keeps the banks relatively unscathed as it flourishes more naturally than reefs that are frequented by tourists.

Despite its smaller size, the NOAA Flower Garden Banks rival or exceed any tourist spot according to many experienced divers. It is believed that the coral is much healthier because it is not visited as often and sometimes new species of wildlife wandering the Gulf stream have found their way to the banks.

The sanctuary consists of three separate areas: East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank and Stetson Bank. Each bank has its own boundaries and miles of open ocean separate all three.

The Stetson Bank is the northernmost reef in North America and only about 70 miles from Galveston Island and 30 miles northwest of the East and West Flower Garden Banks. Because it is shallower and closer to shore, Stetson Bank is more of a sponge habitat, with less coral than the other banks. Some divers prefer it because the wildlife has fewer places to hide and they are easier to observe. Also, it is home to unique marine life including amberjack and manta rays and visited by the occasional blue marlin or school of tuna. About 10 miles separate the East and West Flower Garden Banks. They boast a different variety of coral from the Stetson Bank and more of it. Some who travel there go every year to witness coral spawning, which happens 7-10 days after the full moon in August. It is a phenomenon that few get to experience but many rave is especially beautiful in the NOAA Flower Garden Banks.

Getting to the Flower Garden Banks is not as complicated as it may seem. Several dive and fishing charter operations listed at www.flowergarden.noaa.gov frequent the area. Many choose to stay overnight in order to experience all three banks, but day trips are available as well. The website also ha a wealth of information on the history of the NOAA Flower Garden Banks, as well as current educational and benefit programs.

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