Diving the Flower Garden Banks | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

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This time on Jonathan Bird’s Blue World,exploring seamounts in the Gulf of Mexico! Hi I’m Jonathan Bird and welcome to my world! The Gulf of Mexico.

To many people, it conjures images of oilplatforms or maybe even oil spills.

But this magnificent body of water is so muchmore than a rich deposit of oil and gas reserves.

There is warm, clear water containing lushcoral reefs, murky plankton-filled water with giants feeding on the plankton, and virtuallyeverything in between.

The Gulf of Mexico is an ocean basin surroundedby the United States, Mexico and Cuba.

Though connected to the Caribbean, it is somewhatisolated, and experiences rather small tidal changes.

100 miles off the coast of Texas, there arethree seamounts, rising up from the depths.

Two of them are capped by lush coral reefs.

These are the Flower Garden Banks, protectedby the United States government since 1992 as a National Marine Sanctuary.

I have been fortunate enough to receive aninvitation from the Women Divers Hall of Fame to join their expedition to the Flower GardenBanks.

The trip was planned during the week followingthe full moon in the hopes of observing the coral spawn.

I board the Fling, a dive boat based in Texasthat routinely visits the Flower Garden Banks.

Captain Bland is at the helm as we set a coursefor the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary! And while the Gulf is infamous for rough seas,we got lucky today.

The water is flat calm, and a trio of Bottlenoseddolphins have joined us on the bow.

Our first stop is at Stetson Bank, the northern-mostseamount in the sanctuary.

With the mooring line tied, the ladders godown and it’s time to suit up.

This is the highest giant stride of any diveboat I think I have ever been on.

How far is that? Six feet.

It’s only six feet? That’s it.

That is more than six feet.

Well, wait until the waves go down.

It’s more than six feet.

Alright.

Woo! Next my camera is lowered on a rope.

Sort of.

As a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame,my wife Christine is here.

Cameraman Todd had to stay home because Christineis my camerawoman! We descend 80 feet to the top of Stetson Bank.

Stetson, like the Flower Garden Banks, isa seamount—a pinnacle that rises up from deep water like an underwater mountain.

The summit of that mountain is shallow enoughthat we can get there with conventional scuba gear.

Stetson is sedimentary rock.

Erosion has made the layers of the rock easilyobservable.

Due to cool water temperatures, there is verylittle coral at Stetson Bank, but the rocks are covered in sponges and algae.

The marine life here takes advantage of whatthey have: algae, sponges and cracks.

A crack hides a sea urchin and an arrow crab.

A well-camouflaged Scorpionfish hides in plainsight on an algae-tufted rock.

A cluster of purple tube sponge is a homefor damselfish.

But sponge is also a meal for a hungry Frenchangelfish.

And, one of the hardest fish to find–a Frogfishlooks like a sponge to avoid detection.

It’s in a weird position and hard to film,but this rare beauty deserves some screen time! The bank also attracts big schools of fishlooking for food, and a place to hide at night.

At this depth, we can’t stay very long.

Soon it’s time to head back to the boat.

We ascend up the mooring line, do a safetystop, and then make our way to the ladder at the stern of the boat.

Woo! As soon as everyone is out of the water, thecrew begins filling tanks, and preparing for departure to the Flower Garden Banks.

Anchors are destructive to the reef, so weare tying the boat to a permanently attached mooring line.

Down on the reef, the mooring line is attachedto a strong steel ring embedded in the reef.

There are several mooring sites on the bankand no anchors are allowed.

Before the dive, we get a briefing from CaptainBland.

Just pull hand over hand like you have beendoing… Then it’s time to suit up and check outthe coral! The water here is super clear and blue andI can see the reef below as soon as I hit the water, even though its 80 feet down! Christine and I fire up our cameras and tryto familiarize ourselves with the topography.

We will be back down here after dark lookingfor the coral spawning.

The Flower Garden Banks look much differentthan Stetson Bank.

In the winter, the water here is only 4°Fahrenheit warmer than Stetson, but that’s enough to allow dense coral growth.

In fact, the bank is jam-packed with coralin density that is rarely seen elsewhere.

The top of this seamount isn’t very big,so the coral competes for space.

Star corals and brain corals dominate thelandscape.

Large barrel sponges complete the topographypicture.

There are coral overhangs and crevasses.

They create habitats for the type of marinelife that thrives on Caribbean reefs.

A moray eel watches me with caution.

Christmas tree worms burrow into the coraland extend their delicate gills into the water.

Above the reef, schools of silvery baitfisheat plankton.

At night they will hide in the reef, wherethey will be stalked by Lionfish—beautiful but deadly invasive species that originatedin the Indo-Pacific.

With no natural predators in the Gulf of Mexicoand Caribbean, Lionfish populations are skyrocketing.

Parrotfish are a common sight on all coralsreefs.

They eat the algae that lives on and in coral.

They have hard teeth that can take the abuseof biting at limestone all day.

Once the parrotfish gets used to me, I canget pretty close for some nice shots.

But when I look up, I have attracted the attentionof a Barracuda…and it’s circling! This is definitely not normal Barracuda behavior.

While this fish does look mean, looks canbe deceiving.

The fact is that they’re almost never aggressiveto divers.

So what’s going on? It doesn’t take long to figure out thatI have stumbled into the barracuda’s cleaning station.

As soon as I get out of the way, the barracudaswims up, does its best to hold still, and soon receives the attention of a cleaner fishin the form of a juvenile Spanish Hogfish.

The Hogfish is searching for parasites onthe barracuda to eat.

If it can find any, the Hogfish gets fed andthe barracuda gets rid of an annoying hitch-hiker.

It’s good for everyone.

So the barracuda just keeps orbiting aroundthe Hogfish’s lair.

All too soon, once again its time to makeour way back to the world above.

Christine and I do a safety stop just belowthe boat.

While we are hanging on the mooring line,a manta ray swims by! You can’t beat that for safety stop entertainment! Woo, that was fantastic! Such a great dive with nice clear water…Ilove it! Later in the day, as the sun sets, it’sgetting to be time for the coral spawn.

We can only hope that tonight is the night.

It only happens a few nights per year.

When we start seeing the eggs at the surface,we know we hit the jackpot.

It’s time to go!! Our group of divers rush to hit the water.

As I descend into the dark ocean, it looksmore like outer space.

I’m surrounded by constellations of coralspawn.

I’m getting worried that we missed the mainevent.

Down on the reef, I frantically search forspawning coral.

But it doesn’t take long to find a coralcolony that hasn’t spawned yet.

Each polyp of this brain coral is incubatinga single gamete bundle.

It looks like an egg, but brain corals arehermaphrodites.

Each bundle contains an egg and sperm together.

As the bundles are released and float away,they later separate into eggs and sperm, so they can cross-fertilized in the water column.

I’m conflicted as I patiently wait for acoral colony to spawn.

I have no way of knowing what I’m missingsomewhere else on the reef while I focus all my attention here.

But this is what I came to see! The miracle of life.

The night may be special to the coral, butthe parrotfish is trying to get some well-deserved rest.

I’m pretty sure the honeycomb cowfish isannoyed by my video lights and wants me to leave.

The barracuda has lost interest in gettingcleaned and hunkered down for the night.

Our timing was good.

The coral spawn is about over by the timewe need to leave.

I’m thrilled to have been a part of theexpedition to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

The sponge-covered topography of Stetson Bankwith its diverse inhabitants is an underwater photographer’s paradise.

And the reef-covered shallows of the FlowerGarden Banks are more densely-packed than many Caribbean reefs.

Seeing the coral spawn was icing on the cake.

The Gulf of Mexico is definitely much morethan meets the eye.

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