Podcast: The Hidden Underwater Marvels of The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

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When you think of Galveston, you may not immediately think of scuba diving on a coral reef. But have you ever wondered what lies beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 100 miles south of the Texas coastline? Over 160 square miles of vibrant coral ecosystems, known as the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is located roughly 100 miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border in the Gulf of Mexico. It is made up of several areas of protected coral ecosystems on top of underwater salt dome mountains. And getting to this reef system is easier than you think. Visitors can charter fishing or diving boats to take them to the sanctuary, or those with the appropriate boats and equipment can drive themselves. Scuba diving at the flower gardens is by far the best way to experience these natural reef formations.

The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1992, originally consisting of only a small portion of the Flower Garden Banks. Over the past few decades, it has expanded to protect 160 square miles of fragile marine habitat made up of 17 different reefs and banks. But how did the Flower Garden Banks form in the first place?

The underlying geology consists of salt domes, essential for forming its unique underwater landscape. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Gulf of Mexico was a shallow sea where a hot, dry climate caused significant evaporation, leaving a thick layer of salt on the seafloor. Over time, as the Gulf deepened, mud, sand, and silt covered the salt layers. The pressure from these sediments forced the salt upward, creating domes that either broke through or caused the seafloor to bulge. These salt domes can be a half-mile to two miles across and range in depth from just a few feet to over 10,000 feet below the water. They can even seep salt, making the water around them extremely salty. The depth of the salt domes, known as the flower garden banks, can make them the perfect location for coral reefs to thrive.

Some of the most popular diving spots are roughly 60 feet below the surface, where you'll be met with the most spectacular colors of a lively coral reef. Many of the star and brain corals that dominate the East and West banks are threatened species that have built up over thousands of years. The stony corals at the sanctuary grow slowly, about an inch every two or three years. The layers of these coral skeletons form annual growth patterns, like rings on a tree.

These stony corals are living creatures made up of small polyps that look like tiny sea anemones. It takes hundreds of thousands of these to make up a reef-building colony. Unlike anemones, these transparent coral polyps combine to create a living mat and slowly build their stony skeleton.

The color we see in coral reefs actually comes from symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, which live under the tissue in these coral polyps. When the time comes for this coral to reproduce, Coral spawns can be observed in the sanctuary about a week after the first full moon in August. It's known as one of the most spectacular coral spawning events in the world.

Various other marine life thrives around the flower garden banks, including spotted eagle rays, Christmas Tree Worms, Damselfish, Grouper, Butterflyfish, Parrotfish, Moray Eels, Manta Rays, Crabs, Shrimp, and Hammerhead Sharks, Sea Hares, Squid, and even Whale Sharks.

If you decide to dive at the Flower Garden Banks, you'll probably notice the barracuda first, as they like to keep a close eye on the waters nearest to your boat.

When you do decide to dive the flower garden banks, be sure to bring your camera. Due to the reef's remote location, scientists and staff are often limited in how often they can collect data, so every little bit of information they receive helps them monitor this delicate coral ecosystem.

Whether you're an avid diver or simply a marine enthusiast, remember the importance of protecting these delicate ecosystems. By appreciating and respecting the Flower Garden Banks, we help ensure that the sanctuary remains a thriving habitat for future generations to cherish and explore.

Who knew that getting to a world-renowned coral reef was just a few hours by boat from Galveston? The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a hidden gem in the Gulf of Mexico.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."