Diving the Gardens
The water was so smooth I could have skipped a rock from the West Bank back to Freeport as we prepared to dive. I was back for my 10th trip in six years. I first experienced the wonders of the Flower Gardens in 1996. Each return trip has been unique, beautiful, yet challenging with different obstacles and experiences in each dive. The Flower Garden Banks definitely leave a lasting impression.
Located 110 miles off the Texas-Louisiana border in the Gulf of Mexico lies what many consider ‘the perfect dive.’ The Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary is home to the northernmost coral reefs in North America. These large underwater coral formations, more commonly called the Flower Gardens, have been drawing divers for years. As their popularity grows so to does our fascination with them.
The Gardens, named for the colorful corals and sponges that fishermen sometimes landed or fouled on their hooks, exist at depths of 70' and extend deeper. The reefs sit on top of two salt domes formed 160 to 170 million years ago with the coral formations developing 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. The two ‘Banks’, East and West cover 41.7 square nautical miles and create a vast underwater feeding ground for fish of all sizes. During the spring and fall, hammerhead sharks and giant mantas are common.
As my buddy and I descended off the port side of our dive boat, the Spree, 20 large barracudas met us, floating lazily beside our boat. Barracudas are one of the usual inhabitants of the Gardens and were constant companions throughout most of our dive. Although the water temperature was a cool 65 degrees, the coldest I had ever experienced in the Flower Gardens, our spirits were not dampened. With visibility maxing out at 60-70 feet we decided to make a free descent from the safety line towards the sea floor.
As we descended, I immediately noticed three very large shapes moving directly below us. At first, I couldn't believe my eyes. I had heard of different varieties of sharks in the Flower Gardens, but had never heard anyone talk of seeing Tiger Sharks! Approaching more closely, I noticed the unmistakable vertical stripes on the sides of three sizable sharks swimming directly below us. My buddy, who was closer to the Tiger sharks than I, had not even noticed them. I immediately pulled out my dive knife and started banging my tank. After I pointed them out, she stopped her descent, hovering at a distance. I continued down to her depth and then maintained my distance about 30 feet away.
What a great view. As we continued hovering, one shark looked our way; then immediately swam off. The remaining two followed suit. Within seconds, they disappeared. I was thrilled with the sighting.
It took me a second to realize the dive had just started; we had only been underwater for 10 minutes. As I looked towards the surface, watching my air bubbles rise in the current, I was again stunned to see more sharks. A school of hammerheads was moving right above us.
A few moments later, my buddy pointed out two small eagle rays nearby and a reef shark lurked off in the distance. Absolutely amazing! We followed the hammerheads for about five minutes until we got too far from the boat. Stopping, we watched them finally disappear from view. What a dive! In all I saw 3 tiger sharks, 22 hammerheads, 5 reef sharks, 2 eagle rays and a small squid. I have never experienced a dive like that. When we ascended to the boat, everyone was buzzing with excitement, so amazed at our good fortune. It was equally apparent no one wanted to leave.
Usually, the boat would move out to a deep-water platform for the next dive , but everyone wanted another chance to swim with the sharks. Our dive-master, took a vote and we decided to stay. As we entered the water, we had high expectations. It would really take a lot to top what we had witnessed, on our earlier dive, but as luck would have it we saw two reef sharks. One 5-foot reef shark kept us company throughout our safety stop. He would slide in and out of the down lines coming within a few feet of us. Usually, this sighting alone would have been a great experience. Added to our earlier dive, we were chalking up a remarkable trip.
Our last dive of the day was a night dive, one of my favorites. Night dives draw me to the Flower Gardens not necessarily because of the difference in marine life at night, but because of the surreal experience. The water is so clear you can see other diver's lights and the strobes identifying the safety lines. I've seen sharks at night, manta rays and large jellyfish. There are various iridescence and thousands of small shrimp whose eyes light up all over the reef. At night I always feel as though I am exploring an alien landscape.
For an adventure in the perfect dive or a deep-sea alien exploration treat yourself to a trip to the Flower Gardens. You too can capture lasting impressions and experience a diver's dream. Located in Freeport, Texas Gulf Diving LLC operates two 100' foot dive boats, the Fling and the Spree. Tom's Dive and Ski in Austin, Texas is one dive shop where you can book a trip. Contact them at (512) 451-3425 or online at http://www.tomsscuba.com.