Under the Sea — April 19, 2016 at 5:00 am

“Flower Garden” Marine Sanctuary: Prepare To Be Amazed

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While every dive is a mysterious experience, the Flower Garden Banks, or as local divers know it, the “Flower Garden”, a National Marine Sanctuary located approximately 100-miles due south of Sabine Pass in the area of Port Arthur, Texas, is a little-known underwater world where few have gone before: a secret marine garden of spectacular beauty.

Established in 1992, the marine sanctuary, a national treasure for adventurous divers to explore, is comprised of two main reefs, the East Flower Garden Bank and the West Flower Garden Bank as well as the nearby and somewhat smaller Stetson Bank. Massive Salt Dome Mountains provide a colonization platform for coral, which arrived and started the reef-building process more than 15 thousand years ago.

The gardens are home to more than 23 different species of coral, four dominant species of sponge, and a diverse variety of marine life that includes whale sharks, skates, loggerhead sea turtles, manta rays and more than 170 species of tropical fish. Sharpnose puffer fish, yellowfin grouper, Parrotfish, yellowhead jawfish, peacock flounder, sand tilefish, barracuda, and creole fish are especially plentiful. Schooling jacks, and Bermuda chub dart in and out of the sand patches between waving walls of colorful corals. More than 300 intriguing species of marine invertebrates inhabit the engaging banks.

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Flushed by crystal clear Gulf Stream eddies, the Flour Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary encompasses 56 square miles with the East and West Flower Garden Banks located about 12 nautical miles apart. Both the East and West Gardens showcase rolling hills of brown and chartreuse colonies of mustard hill, boulder star, and symmetrical brain coral that stretches to the edge of visibility, which normally exceeds 100 feet. The sanctuary has a total of 17-moored dive sites.

The stellar Stetson Bank, only 700-yards long and 200-feet wide, showcases a siltstone-based reef that acts as a magnet for fire coral, arrow crabs, spiny oysters, and ten-ray star coral formations that attract scorpion fish and golden morph trunkfish. On its north side, the Stetson presents a wall that drops a dramatic 180-feet.

The beautiful colored marine area gained its name as the Flower Garden Banks from fishermen that could see the brilliant colors of the reef formation from the surface and found their lines and nets entangled in the brilliant sponges and corals that covered the sea floor. The protected Flower Garden Banks, together with the Stetson Bank, are the least disturbed of all coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea and the western Atlantic, and are counted amongst the handful of reefs in the world designated pristine.

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Within the azure swirling waters divers delight in viewing nurse sharks, eagle rays, sandbar sharks, Mobula rays, hammerhead sharks, and silky sharks darting about the intriguing coral formations as they pursue their annual migration. The most amazing site divers view at the sanctuary is the annual mass coral spawning which occurs during the full moon of August. Seven to ten days after the arrival of the full moon, the hard corals of the East and West Flower Banks erupt in a simultaneous release of tiny sacs of sperm and eggs that dance upward to the surface like tiny bubbles of a fine champagne. Clumps of the tiny spawn float on the surface forming nascent mats of coral polyps soon to mature as the next generation coral colony.

Divers seeking to explore the underwater wonders of the Gulf of Mexico will find the best diving days in the summer season, which runs May through October, or the shorter winter season of mid-February through mid-April. Water temperatures vary from 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months to an annual average of 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Experienced local dive masters in Port Arthur, Texas, offer two and three day outings for certified divers. All gear and grub are provided. All visitors need to pack is sun protection, a sense of joyful anticipation and sense of wonder.

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