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February 2004 Vol. 30, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Flower Gardens of Texas

in search of spawning coral

from the February, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Feathery brittle stars with bright orange legs retreated from my light. Hundreds of shrimp eyes peered from coral crevices. A balloonfish, blinded by a light, blundered into a diver's mask. An enormous loggerhead turtle emerged from behind a brain coral. It almost stretched from my head to my fin tips. It swam through the large mass of divers, causing lights to flash crazily as the divers reacted.

Not bad, but this wasn't why I had come to the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary. I had made the 110-mile trip into the Gulf of Mexico aboard the Fling in search of cnidarian sex -- a veritable orgy in which slicks of eggs and sperm coat the sea's surface. The coral spawning is supposed to occur eight days after the August full moon.

Peter Vize, a University of Calgary biologist who has been studying the Flower Gardens spawn, was on a scientific trip aboard the Fling's sister boat, Spree. He came aboard to tell us what to expect before our first night dive. About 90 percent of the banks were composed of three species of coral: a common brain coral and two types of star coral, all of which grow into rounded mounds that define the banks' reefscape. The star corals would spawn earlier in the three-day period, and the brain coral would be most active on the last night. These species spawn on the same nights in other locations as well, but the Flower Gardens is a top location to see spawning.

But it didn't happen as anticipated -- or at least we didn't see the full show. On my first night dive, I spotted three male colonies of cavernous star coral releasing clouds of sperm. Each individual polyp exploded like a tiny volcano, and I could see the polyp expand and contract once it had completed its mission. In a female colony, the polyps were spitting out strings of eggs that looked like white worms.

On our second night dive, I saw another Cavernosa female and four brain coral expelling packets that looked like little snowy balls drifting slowly off the coral's surface. On the third night: nothing. And I never saw any action from the reef's most dominant species, mountainous star coral, a hermaphrodite that produces copious clouds of pink packets. During discussions on the Fling, nobody claimed to have seen much more than I did, and some saw nothing at all.

After I returned home, I e-mailed Vize, who said we had just been unlucky. We were limited to one night dive each night -- not enough bottom time to catch the peak of the spawning, which can't always be predicted to the hour. The researchers who had chartered the Spree stayed underwater most of the night and got a better show. Vize said, "I saw hundreds of colonies spawning. The Flower Gardens of TexasAt times it reached levels on par with peak years, where colonies were going off on all sides of you. ... Without long bottom times, such events are easy to miss, and even on a peak year people report they didn't see a thing."

It seems to me that Gulf Diving's so-called spawning cruise aboard the Fling ought to mean eliminating an afternoon or morning dive and allowing their passengers to make two night dives with a shorter surface interval than the 2-1/2 to 3 hours normally required. Still, not getting the chance to swim through a gamete blizzard didn't make the trip a total disappointment. The Flower Gardens are a solid destination even without an orgy. Indeed, you get a lot of diving for your dollar in the "Texas Caribbean."

We left the dock in Freeport (a two hour drive south of Houston) at 10 p.m. Sunday, August 17 and returned at 5 p.m. the following Friday. We made five dives Monday; four each Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; and one Friday -- lightning kept us out of the water for another dive. The Flower Gardens are two plateaulike reefs in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. The West Flower Gardens lie mostly between 70 and 85 feet, and the East Flower Gardens range from 60 to 75. There are deeper pockets, and the edges of the banks drop off steeply. The terrain is mostly mounds of coral, with occasional crevasses and sand patches. Twenty-one coral species are found there, but the three spawners dominate. There are no soft or branching corals. The sponges are mostly encrusting, lending flashes of red, pink, and purple under lights. Although the number of fish species is much lower than in the Caribbean, fish life is abundant. Queen and stoplight parrotfish are commonplace, as are queen and blue angelfish, ocean triggerfish, and small tropicals like tangs, squirrelfish, chromis, and varieties of damselfish. And, during one safety stop, I counted 63 barracuda hovering around me.

But the big draw is the chance to see pelagics in the wild-and-woolly openocean. I saw schools of jacks almost every dive on the Flower Gardens, mostly crevalle and horseye. One school, a hundred strong, surged around me. Other divers reported seeing half a dozen eagle rays. Hammerheads are reportedly numerous in the winter, but the conditions are rougher and water temperatures drop from the mid to low eighties in the summer to the high 60s in winter. Whale shark sightings allegedly occur in the summer; while we didn't get that treat, I did see several small silky sharks, several nurse sharks ... and a large manta in 75-foot visibility near East Flower Gardens buoy #6. To my delight, the manta swam at a pace I could match, albeit with some effort. When I thought I'd have to break off, the manta turned and came back! I swam with her (I checked her sex) for half an hour, getting a close-up view of twin remoras on either shoulder and the scar on her left wing. She didn't seem to mind when I stroked her sandpapery back and soft underside.

On our next dive, a silky shark cruised by. Ten minutes later, having swum twice as far as on the previous dive, the water was getting colder, and the depth had dropped to 85 feet. My computer was telling me to turn around. And then ... there was the manta again. We swam a few loops around her, then headed toward the boat. (With this much diving on Nitrox, I had to watch not just my nitrogen saturation, but my also oxygen exposure as well. I used air for the shallower rig dives to make the O2 line on my computer recede.)

If nothing large makes an appearance, the diving can get monotonous, because there isn't much diversity in the terrain or the fauna. Unless you go down the dropoffs -- which are deep enough so that you can only do it on the first dive of the day -- the sites all look alike. However, I wasn't bored. I can find something to look at on any healthy coral head. But more than five days would have been too much, and the 2- and 3-day itineraries are probably more appropriate.

We made dives near two of the oil/gas extraction platforms that ring the sanctuary. At the HIA 376-B, I enjoyed staring down the blennies inhabiting abandoned barnacle shells and even spotted a garish tessellated blenny, orange with blue markings. But there was more fish action on HIA 379-B. I watched a pair of scrawled filefish examine the rig supports, and schools of crevalle and blue runners whipped through the structure. Two silkies circled outside the rig.

Thursday afternoon, we moved to Stetson Bank for a day and night dive and one Friday morning dive. This area, closer to the Texas coast, is a few degrees cooler in the winter and does not support a coral community. Fish flutter around a moonscape of otherworldly pinnacles of orange rock dotted with gray and black sponges. It's about 65 feet at the top of a ridge; the next ledge sits at 90 feet. The rock crevasses are infested with spotted, green, and goldentail eels. Most are thumb thickness, but some are larger. One little goldentail was nestled in a rock tube, with his head poking out one end and his tail poking out the other, like an eel-ina- blanket. I saw numerous queen and blue angelfish, as well as French angels. Thousands of blennies inhabited holes in the rock. A huge school of goatfish hugged the bottom, trying to keep from being blasted off the rocks by the fierce current, worthy of Cozumel -- and we weren't drift diving. The divemasters warned us, but I went anyway.

For most of the trip, I'd been eschewing surfacing up the mooring line (who wants to get in line with the hoi polloi?) and instead grabbed one of three weighted lines that drop down 40 feet. That night at Stetson, the current raged even more fiercely near the surface than at the bottom, and the visibility dropped to almost nothing at 50 feet. There wasn't much chance of finding one of those vertical lines, though they were tipped by strobes. I rocketed back to the bottom and hung on until I spotted first the lights of other divers, then the larger light at the bottom of the mooring. I clawed my way back to it, and when I grabbed that rope I had only 300 psi left. I got to safety-stop depth as fast as my ascent alarm would allow.

The Fling carries 31 paying passengers, but I never felt crowded. About a third were traveling solo. All but a few were returning customers. The galley crew and divemasters are unpaid, except for tips; they do it mainly for the free ride. The two divemasters do not dive with the customers. One of them checks the conditions and gives a briefing before each dive, but they stay on deck to help divers in and out of the water and to be available in an emergency. Everyone was friendly and competent. The divemasters and trip leaders help with equipment problems, get people and cameras in and out of the water, and answer questions. There is a table and rinse tank devoted to cameras; the divemasters lower cameras into the water on lines with snap hooks, and returning divers snap their rigs back on the same lines for retrieval. (There are no film processing facilities.) Water entry is with a giant stride, about a six foot drop; exit is up ladders at the stern.

Trip leaders from the dive shops that book the trips dive with the customers but do not act as guides. When I complained after the first dive that the buddy I was assigned was too inexperienced for me, my trip leader, Dennis Fanning, didn't disagree. He dealt with it by diving with us, taking responsibility for the newbie and staying with me after we sent him to the surface. After half a dozen dives, the man had improved enormously, and he was a pleasure to dive with thereafter.

While these boats have a reputation for harsh and inflexible rules, I found that to be largely undeserved on my second trip on the Fling. The rules had been a little tighter and the atmosphere more tense before a group of employees bought the boats from former owner Gary Rinn a year ago. The crew never said a harsh word to me, although I surfaced long after my buddy on almost every dive, contrary to the instructions. I was the last diver out on many dives and frequently had bottom time more than an hour. I never strayed far from the boat once my buddy headed for the hang line. I think they would extend the same flexibility to anyone who showed that they know what they are doing.

In the past, anyone who broke 100 feet was barred from further diving, for the day or the whole trip; the sanction got tougher after a couple of accidents occurred. Now divers can go to 130 feet on the first dive of the day, 100 on other dives. I never saw anybody's computer being checked; certainly nobody checked mine. They just logged my reported maximum depth and time after every dive. While the depth rule is stated as an absolute, the crew made it clear to me that a diver would not be benched for hitting 101 feet one time.

However, I do wish the crew were more vigilant in backing up what they say about being protective of the reef. Many divers kicked a lot of coral and clearly didn't care. They seemed to think that anything was justified because they had expensive cameras.

The accommodations are plywood bunks with sheets, pillows, and blankets in cabins that sleep four to six people, below the main deck. There is storage space underneath and at the foot of some bunks. The cabins have doors (although four bunks are in the open), and each bunk has a privacy curtain. The Flower Gardens of TexasI found the space adequate for one person, the mattress reasonably comfortable, and the temperature tolerable. The two forward cabins, reached through the wheelhouse, are a little more private and have a head essentially used by only their occupants. The only shower is here, but most people showered in their bathing suits on the dive deck. This is also where the two double bunks are located. Get there early and make a run for it if you care where you sleep, since there are no reservations (and no towels; bring your own).

The galley, as well as tables and bench seating, is in the center of the main deck, between the wheelhouse and the rear dive deck. There are two heads, clean and adequate, with lights, mirrors, and regular toilets. They keep the A/C cranked up in there, so bring a sweatshirt. There's not enough space for everyone to eat at once, but some guests ate on the upper sun deck, which had picnic tables and lounge chairs.

Packaged muffins and pastries, fruit, juice, and coffee are available from 5:30 a.m. until the first dive at 7:30 a.m. A hot breakfast follows the dive, with scrambled eggs a constant and pancakes or French toast added some days. Nothing special, but edible. Lunches ranged from mediocre cold cuts to juicy, cooked-to-order hamburgers. Dinner was always simple but tasty: fajitas, marinated baked chicken, meat loaf. The first dinner, they say, is always Texas-style smoked brisket and sausage, a cholesterol nightmare that I found delicious. The galley crew served up freshly made cake, cookies, and brownies. A sweet snack was available after the night dive; the pecan pie with ice cream was quite good. Water and lemonade or Gatorade were always available. The galley hands dispensed sodas for 75 cents and canned beer for $1.25 (after the night dive, unless you want to sit out the rest of the day). Guests can bring their own wine or liquor and turn it over to the galley for safekeeping.

Should you go? It's one of America's few warm water adventure trips, that's for sure. For experienced divers, the freedom is great. For a novice, it could be dangerous in these open-ocean conditions. There were powerful currents every day. On the rigs, we had to work not to be blown into the structure, although the current abated on the lee side of the pilings. At the Flower Gardens, the current was manageable, but there was a significant current near the surface on almost every dive, On some dives it was positively ripping above 30 feet, so I did my safety stops in the flag-flying position. On several dives, the visibility was also low near the surface, with the murk starting anywhere from 40 to 20 feet. There is good reason why a Zodiac is ready at the stern during every dive. So, if that's your kind of adventure and you don't mind group sleeping and a lack of privacy, then three days in the "Texas Caribbean" may be quite exciting.

-- V.A.

The Flower Gardens of TexasDiver's Compass: Trips on the Fling and Spree must be booked through dive shops; get the schedule with the shops that have reserved spaces at ... The five-day coral spawning trip cost me $605, but one of the shops charged $200 more; three-day trips run about $400, and two-day trips are $300-$350. ... Nitrox (32% only) is $65 extra; dive shops routinely arrange for divers to complete their Nitrox certification onboard. ... The specific itinerary, and whether platform dives are included, is up to the captains and dependent on weather and water conditions. ... One other live-aboard makes the same trip: Sea Searcher II, which carries 16 passengers and research volunteers(; For the spawning period, it was booked by Oceanographic Expeditions, a research organization; $995 for the five days, or $1,195 with transportation from Houston and overnight accommodations at the end of the trip. ... Freeport, a dreary industrial town dominated by refineries, is 35 miles down the coast from Galveston. ... It's about a 90-minute drive from Houston. You will have to rent a car, unless the dive shop you book with can hook you up with someone willing to give you a ride. ... You must bring your own gear; you can arrange to have tanks and weights waiting onboard. ... There are no rentals or formal repair facilities. ... A wetsuit and especially gloves are essential; as one of the divemasters said, "Just about everything down there will sting you." ... I was asked for my C-card, but not a logbook. ... It's not uncommon for trips to be aborted due to rough weather; call your shop or check the Web for an update. ... Good overall information at

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