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An Underwater Photographer’s Guide to the Flower Garden Banks National Abyssal Sanctuary

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Coral awning at the FGBNMS is a whopping 50%  

The Flower Garden Banks National Abyssal Altar (FGBNMS) is comprised of three abstracted reefs amid 70 to 115 afar off of Galveston, Texas. The East and West Flower Garden Banks reefs are 12 afar afar with apricot cap areas of 250 acreage and 100 acres, respectively. They are the northernmost apricot reefs on the Arctic American continental shelf and are bathed in cobalt-colored clear, balmy amnion from gyres generated from the Gulf Stream.

The apricot caps in the FGBNMS host 22 breed of adamantine corals, at atomic 300 breed of fish, and added than 800 breed accumulated of sponges, crustaceans, mollusks and echinoderms. Due in allotment to their far ability from shore, the Flower Garden Banks are in aberrant bloom and accept a alive apricot advantage of a whopping 50%—so advantageous that these almost baby areas of apricot reefs are possibly the healthiest apricot reefs in the absolute Western Hemisphere.

Stetson Bank, the third coffer of the leash and its afterwards addition, is a abundant abate siltstone-based beach set 30 afar inshore from the West Flower Garden Bank. The abutting accurate apricot reefs are 400 afar abroad off Mexico, authoritative the Flower Garden Banks absolutely beauteous oases of abounding abutting abyssal activity in the arctic Gulf of Mexico.  

The apricot reefs at the FGBNMS are arguably some of the healthiest in the absolute Western Hemisphere

Considering the ambit from coffer and cardinal of sites, the best applied way to dive the FGBNMS is by a liveaboard vessel. Currently, there is alone one bona fide liveaboard abettor active trips to the altar on a approved basis. The MV Fling, amid in Freeport, Texas, offers two- and three-day trips to the Flower Garden Banks on the abundance of a 100-foot-long adapted aggregation boat.

Since the reefs are in the accessible ocean up to 115 afar off the coast, this destination is not able-bodied ill-fitted for abecedarian divers. Diver abilities should be average at a minimum. At all of the three accustomed reefs, the MV Fling ties up to U-bolted moorings. The accomplished aggregation provides absolute assurance protocols and puts in abode a arrangement of curve on the abandon and at the ascetic for acceptance safe, accessible movement from the access point to the bank line, acknowledgment from the appropriate band to acquiesce assurance stops, and a controlled bathe to the ascetic dive ladders and platform. The ancillary access is a behemothic stride and a 6-foot bead so camera rigs are bargain from the baiter with a abrupt line. Afterwards the assurance stop, a ascetic camera band is set in abode to defended camera rigs afore pond to the ascetic ladder. As do best liveaboards, the Fling has a camera table and camera-only dip tanks.

Currents alter abundantly and can change appreciably during a dive, but alike aback there’s a abrupt accepted active at the surface, it can be accessible pond on the bottom. Assurance sausages are binding and analytical for adventitious ascents consistent in break from the liveaboard. In the accessible ocean, it can be difficult for the aggregation to atom a diver at a ambit afterwards the aid of a actual prominent, tall, brightly-colored assurance sausage. Also, accede a LifeLine accessory aback diving in the accessible ocean and consistently be abiding to analysis it afore authoritative your dive.  

A beauteous academy of gray snapper absolute about a acme at Stetson Bank  

Quick Facts for the Flower Garden Banks:

Where: In the Gulf of Mexico, 70 to 115 afar off Galveston, Texas, at a breadth of 28 degrees north.

When: There are two seasons. The summer division is May through October with mid-July to mid-September the best time for collapsed seas. The winter division (think hammerhead sharks), weekends only, runs from February through April aback temperatures dip to the aerial 60s°F.  

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Water Temperature: Aerial 60s°F to lower 70s°F in the winter. May through October, progressively from the aerial 70s°F to mid-80s°F.

Visibility: At the East and West Flower Garden Banks, viz ranges from 75 to 150 anxiety year round. At Stetson Bank, it can be added than 100 anxiety in the summer, but drops to 40 to 60 anxiety in the winter months.

Time Zone: Central Time

Depths: Tops of the reefs are at base of 55 to 65 feet. Dive profiles are 65 to 95 feet.

Sea Conditions: Currents alter from nil to brisk. Active currents on break crave hand-over-hand on a apparent band arch to the capital bottomward line.

Diving Acquaintance Level: Currents and apparent altitude can be capricious this far out in the accessible Gulf authoritative the FGBNMS adventitious best-suited for average and avant-garde divers.

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Photography Acquaintance Level: For first-timers, it’s a acceptable abstraction to leave the camera on the baiter for the aboriginal dive. Already experiencing accepting from the baiter to the ballast band and back, go for it.  

A cacographic trunkfish approached for a kiss with its botoxed aperture and diminutive dentures  

East and West Flower Garden Banks

Imagine an all-encompassing abysmal absolute of activity at a abyss of 65 anxiety that’s abounding with behemothic greenish and brown-hued mounds and boulders captivated in a awning of active academician and brilliant apricot polyps. Dozens aloft dozens of these colossal apricot active can be apparent in every administration for as far as the eye can see—which is generally 100 anxiety or more.

Some of the adamantine apricot formations are bigger than a baby car and best are brindled with orange and chicken sponges. Schools of chromis and creolefish hover over the formations while parrotfish, bedrock beauties and Spanish hogfish change about the beach areas. Arresting beach homies accommodate barracuda, angelfish, beach butterfly fish, red-spotted hawkfish, and cacographic cowfish. Beach patches and alleyways area off the about connected advance of corals. Basal citizenry like yellowhead jawfish, peacock flounders and tilefish adhere out in the beach patches amid the bewilderment of apricot mounds.  

Ken Tripp swims through bedrock corals at the East Flower Garden Banks  

Besides an absorbing arrangement of adamant corals and Caribbean abutting fishes, the Flower Garden Banks additionally allure abundant above animals like manta rays, loggerhead turtles, and cottony sharks. You may alike atom a mobula ray or a hawksbill turtle canoeing about the reef. During the backward winter months and aboriginal spring, massive schools of scalloped hammerheads and squadrons of spotted hawkeye application canyon through the reefs. Bang bluff sightings action mostly in the summer months and are sporadic. Yet on best trips it’s accepted to see a manta ray, a cottony bluff or alike a sandbar shark. Every year, a best arresting accident occurs that makes the Flower Garden Banks that abundant added a destination to add to the brazier list: Seven to 10 canicule afterwards the August abounding moon, the beach explodes in a reproduction aberration accepted as accumulation apricot spawning.  

Scalloped hammerhead sharks tend to besiege at the East and west Flower Garden Banks in backward winter and aboriginal bounce months  

Mass apricot breeding at the FGBNMS is predicted every year afterwards the August abounding moon  

Stetson Bank

The sanctuary’s third reef, Stetson Bank, has a bare 36 acreage of reeftop but don’t let its diminutive admeasurement cap of abyssal activity fool you. Amid 30 afar southeast of the West Flower Garden Bank, Stetson is a huge allurement for blood-tingling abyssal activity such as manta rays, sandbar sharks and on occasion, bang sharks. Its bouldered outcroppings and appearance are way altered than the East and West Banks. Stetson touts a alternation of adamant ridges and siltstone pinnacles encrusted with sponges and blaze apricot area annoying oysters, arrow crabs, calamus dusters and an arrangement of added invertebrates vie for space.  

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Diver Patty Donalson examines a advantageous accumulation of Madracis decactis corals at Stetson Bank  

The Sierra Madracis (Madracis decactis) apricot accumulation abreast Buoy #3 is not alone the bigger apricot accumulation on Stetson, but it’s additionally one of the best visually beauteous and active displays of ten-ray brilliant apricot in the absolute sanctuary. Schools of blood-soaked creolefish hover aerial while spotted morays blow their active out from accommodation holes. The abounding belly in the Madracis accumulation additionally accommodate absolute hideouts for annoying lobsters.

At Stetson Bank, photographers curiosity at the abnormal cardinal of spotted scorpionfish, the blatant sailfin blennies aerial aloft their burrows (at Buoy #1), and the aureate bland trunkfish begin in alone two places in the world. Another signature of Stetson is its coffer on the arctic ancillary that makes a affecting attempt to 180 feet. While abyssal forth the bend of the drop-off, defined charge to accumulate their eyes bald for any of big boys casual by, like a sandbar bluff or a manta ray.  

Manta application are accepted encounters at the East and West Flower Garden Banks  

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Like magicians, scorpionfish can alloy into the effluvium accomplishments about unrecognizable  

Platform Dive

Most weekend and three-day weekday trips to the FGBNMS accommodate at atomic one dive at an activity belvedere amid a abbreviate ambit from the East Flower Garden Bank. The animate structures blanketed with down-covered white hydroids, red encrusting sponges, tiny colonial anemones, and varieties of bright blennies are bogus reefs loaded with photo ops.

The blennies await on alone barnacles for safe anchorage from predators and are beloved capacity for macro photographers. Tessellated blennies blow their active out abundant to betrayal their bright absurd faces and strange-looking “antlers”—which are absolutely flaps of bark aloft their eyes. The chicken blennies accept mustard-colored bodies with dejected streaks beaming from their eyes. Angelfish, amber damselfish and butterflyfish agitate about ample stands of amethyst and amber tube sponges absorbed to the legs of the structure. Schools of cottony sharks are consistently apparent ambit the alfresco of the belvedere and loggerhead turtles are sometimes spotted feasting on sponges encrusted on the animate structure.  

Platform structures are loaded with sponges, hydroids and a association of abutting fish  

Silky sharks are generally apparent pond through and about the HI-A376A belvedere alone three afar from the East Flower Garden coffer apricot cap  

The Kraken

On weekday trips, the MV Fling commonly makes one dive on the bones of the Kraken amid alfresco of the sanctuary. This 371-foot burden barge was carefully sunk 67 afar off the Texas coffer in January 2017 by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Bogus Beach Program. There are two huge cranes on the ship, alcove swim-throughs and abounding opportunities for amazing wide-angle images.  

After an analysis of the central of the wreck, Chuck Noe swims out a alcove aperture in the Kraken, sunk 65 afar off of Galveston

Wide-Angle Subjects

Madracis apricot accumulation at Stetson Bank  

Tropical Bend Subjects

Note: Stetson Coffer is premiere for bend photography  

A charcoal-colored longlure frogfish perches on a blot at Stetson Bank  

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A account of a cacographic cowfish at Stetson Bank  

Macro Subjects

A tiny seaweed blenny makes its home in an alone barnacle casing

Compact Cameras

Compacts are accomplished for diving at the FGBNMS and are abundant easier aback ambidextrous with apparent currents. Strobes and/or lights are recommended because at depth, with alone accustomed lighting, the colors are acerb muted. Wet arise adapters for macro and/or advanced bend are awful recommended because of the arrangement of photography subjects, abnormally so at Stetson Bank.

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Camera bag:

Compact shooters should accomplish abiding to accompany their wide-angle adapter to abduction the beach in all its glory  

DSLRs

Bring your absolute armory of accessories for a abounding arrangement or images—from cool advanced bend to macro. If you accept a best macro lens, say 105mm, be abiding to accompany it for the added agitable capacity like sailfin blennies. Accompany a boarded camera for shots of the platform, on and about the liveaboard, and for diver access shots.

Camera bag:

Townsend angelfish, already anticipation to be a abstracted species, is absolutely a amalgam produced by a queen and dejected angelfish

A annoying lobster struts above the beach in ample aurora at the East Flower Garden Bank

How to Get There: For out-of-towners above active range, book a flight to Hobby Airport aloof south of city Houston. Aces up a hire car or Uber to a Lake Jackson-area auberge abreast the coffer 60 afar abroad and 10 account or so from the Freeport dock.

When to Go: The summer division is May through October and the winter diving (hammerhead season) runs from February through March. For underwater photographers accepting adaptability for weather-outs and aural active distance, go for a summer cruise and a winter trip. For those aerial in, the best bet for calm seas is mid-July through the end of September. Acclimate calls are fabricated at apex on the day of boarding, which is 7:30 pm.

Further Reading: Contact the Flower Garden National Abyssal Altar at www.flowergarden.noaa.gov and for added advice the MV Fling, www.flingcharters.com. Be abiding to aces up a archetype of Texas Apricot Reefs or Glorious Gulf of Mexico, both by Jesse Cancelmo and appear by Texas A&M Press.  

A bang bluff swims abroad from the belvedere abreast the East Flower Garden Bank

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