Treasures of the Flower Garden

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The place is a true wonder of nature. Some call it a national treasure.

It is certainly a place anyone who desires to learn about the ocean would be intrigued to learn about. The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) is one of 14 federally designated underwater areas protected by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

A mysterious sea hare takes a swim.

It is the only sanctuary site located in the Gulf of Mexico. Situated 70 to 115 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary includes underwater communities that rise from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico atop underwater mountains called salt domes.

According to NOAA the sanctuary actually protects three separate areas: East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank, and Stetson Bank. The reef caps at East and West Flower Garden Banks are about 13 miles apart, while Stetson Bank lies about 30 miles to the northwest of West Flower Garden Bank.

Divers check out a loggerhead sea turtle.

The miles of open ocean between banks range in depth from 200 to 500 feet (61-152 meters). Each bank has its own set of boundaries.

The Flower Garden Banks were discovered by snapper and grouper fishermen in the early 1900s. They named the banks after the brightly colored sponges, plants, and other marine life they could see on the colorful reefs below their boats.

In the early part of the year (January through March) it’s not unusual to see large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. Scientists don’t truly know the reason for this seasonal schooling, but have noted that it’s a regular occurrence in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. They’ve also noted that all of the sharks appear to be male.

Continued interest in the biological diversity and breathtaking beauty of the reefs at East and West Flower Garden Banks led to their designation as a sanctuary under the National Marine Sanctuary Act (NMSA) (160kb pdf) in 1992. The algal-sponge communities of Stetson Bank were added to the sanctuary in 1996.

We could find no better way to conclude our summer-long Wild Gulf series than to show images graciously shared with us by NOAA and the staff of the FGBNMS 

According to NOAA these banks, created by the uplift of the aforementioned underlying salt domes, rise from depths of over 330 feet to within 56 feet of the surface. They are relatively isolated from other Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico coral reefs. 

“The nearest reefs are 400 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Tampico, and the coral reefs of the Florida Keys are more than 745 miles away. The complexity of habitats supports a diverse assemblage of organisms including approximately 250 species of fishes, 23 species of coral, and 80 species of algae in addition to large sponge communities.

The predominant coral species at the East and West Flower Gardens are massive, closely-spaced boulder and brain corals and mountainous star corals. Coral growth is relatively uniform over the entire top of both banks, occupying the bank crests down to about 50 meters. The prevalent species at Stetson Bank are smaller encrusting corals, such as fire coral (not a true coral) and green cactus coral.”

“The coral reef ecosystem at the FGBNMS has been described as being relatively pristine and thriving, as compared to other Caribbean reef systems, despite its location in the middle of one of the largest oil and gas fields in the world.”

For more information about the site, go to flowergarden.noaa.gov.

 

 

Exploring the Garden

In 1960, Dr. Thomas Pulley, Director Emeritus of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, led the first scientific expedition to the Flower Garden Banks to determine the truth behind the rumors of coral reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico. In addition to professional researchers, the explorers included Navy divers.

First scientific expediton, 1960.

Another trip in 1967 was documented by the World Book Science Service and resulted in an article that was published in March 1968.

 

 

—story by Chester Moore

 

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