110 miles of the coast of Texas in the northwest part of the Gulf of Mexico lies atop of underwater mountains called salt domes, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Forming one of the 14 designated underwater areas protected by the federal government, the Sanctuary covers 56 square miles or 146 sq kilometers comprising of two areas, the East Flower Garden, the West Flower Garden and the Stetson Bank. Each of these large salt domes which rise up just below the surface of the water are teeming with a wide variety of coral and marine life that have made this area their home over the centuries, and are now considered one of the most pristine untouched reefs in the Caribbean.
The area was originally nick-named by snapper fisherman as the“Texas Flower Gardens”, due to the colorful coral that was visible from the surface and chunks of colorful coral and sponges that were snagged by the lines and nets of fisherman in the area. In 1992 the two larger reefs, the East Flower Garden and the West Flower Garden were designated National Marine Sanctuaries, and the third, the Stenton Bank in 1996.
Home to over 21 species of coral, 170 species of fish and over 300 species of reef invertebrates, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is a utopia for Scuba Divers. The East and West Flower Gardens are teeming with large boulder corals, primarily brain and star corals, and have several large rays, skates, manta rays, whale sharks and loggerhead turtles. Dive boats can anchor to the one of 5 buoys in the area, and if you anchor to the crest of the salt dome, a diver can swim in any direction and explore the 360 degree fields of coral. Depths in the Sanctuary range from a shallow of 20m (65 feet) to 130m (424ft) deep with Visibility ranging from 75-150 feet (23-45 m).
The Stenton Bank is a smaller dome, with four buoys to anchor to, located much closer together. The water gets deep fast as the coral banks drop off sharply into the Gulf and has only 1 percent of its total area within the recreational diving limit of 130 feet (39 m). However the Stenton Bank has been described by scuba divers as akin to diving on the moon. Eel, urchins, shrimp, lobsters and shellfish are numerous, and the occasional Manta Ray or turtle gliding by isn’t uncommon. Other large fish such as scorpionfish, barracuda, jacks and groupers are found everywhere.
There are several commercial dive charter operators take divers out to the Flower Garden Banks but two boats that regularly set course to Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary,are the M/V Spree and the M/V Fling 100ft both liveaboards that arrange 2-3 day excursions from Freeport Texas that can carry groups of up to 28 divers. The dives at the Texas Flower Gardens are recommended for intermediate and advanced divers owing to the steep drop-offs and varying depths, no special scuba diving equipment is necessary to dive at the site.
photos by: NOAA’s National Ocean Service