It’s called Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. It’s one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 13 marine sanctuaries.
“They can be protected because of specific types of habitat, to protect endangered species, to protect cultural resources such as ship wrecks. These are all around the continental U.S., one in the Great Lakes, two in Hawaii and one in America Samoa.”
That’s Kelly Drinnen with Flower Garden Banks, the only marine sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This is an area that protects coral reefs. These are the northern most coral reefs in the continental U.S. and the ones that most people know nothing about.”
The Flower Garden Banks headquarters is in Galveston in a building that was once the gymnasium at Ft. Crockett. The reefs themselves are a total of about 56 square miles in three locations. East and West Flower Banks are about 115 southeast of Galveston and Stetson Bank is about 70 miles south of Galveston.
The reefs are more than 50-feet underwater and were named by fisherman more than a hundred years ago because from the surface they looked like flower gardens. Some early studies were conducted in the 19-30’s but Flower Garden Bank’s Shelly Du Puy says that was followed by 30 years of doubts about them being living reefs…
“The fisherman were saying ‘yes they’re out there’ but the scientists were saying ‘ummm, it’s really kind of cold there for corals and it’s probably a little too muddy in the water for them.”
Du Puy says it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the doubts were put to rest.
“The Houston Museum of Natural Science, at that time, teamed up with the Navy, took a bunch of volunteer divers out, dove on the reef and said ‘this is a living reef! Wow! Cool!”
The Marine Sanctuaries Act was established in 1972, but it wasn’t until 1992 the Flower Garden Banks became a National Marine Sanctuary.
There are rules that must be followed, but divers can explore the reefs. Because of the distance most trips are overnight and it’s really a dive for an intermediate level diver at least. Kelly Drinnen says what you get there is really worth.
“Right now these are considered the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean Basin. They have less disease, they have experienced less bleaching over time and they have the greatest coral coverage of any reef in the entire Caribbean. We have over 52%, or about 52% coral coverage, that means when you look down at the bottom 52% of the bottom is covered in corals.”
Renee Evans is a scuba diver who works here at KUHF and has been to Flower Garden Banks. She says in addition to coral there’s a lot of marine life to see.
“I remember seeing a lot of barracuda, a lot of damsel fish, those are the little small ones. Clown fish are actually damsel fish, and they defend their little coral hedge. You’ll get close to them and they’ll actually come after you like 20 or 30 of them and there little one inch fish threatening you to stay away from their home. It’s pretty awesome.”
Flower Garden Banks offers activities for the community and the classroom and even a summer dive program for teachers. To learn more about Flower Garden Banks, visit flowergarden.noaa.gov.