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July 1999 Flower Gardens Trip Report

Text and images Copyright (C) 1999 David M. Read.  All rights reserved.

east-bank-1.jpg (24784 bytes)
East Bank has it all: coral, sponges,
sand flats, and plenty of fish.

I was invited to divemaster the boats for Rinn boats on a three-day trip (Monday, July 26 1999 through Wednesday the 28th), which is always a lot of fun. Initially I was slated to work the M/V Fling on their annual 'Teacher Cruise,' but due to a scheduling snafu, I was transferred to the Spree at the last minute. That was a big switch for me, because I have only worked the Fling in the past, and only twice at that. I had been scheduled to work the Fling with Ken Bush, who is one of Rinn's most experienced DMs (a good thing for me), but I ended up on the Spree with a new DM who had never worked the boats other than for her one training cruise--in other words, I was the senior DM, and I had only been out twice! YIKES!

OK, grin and bear it, let's get the show on the road. We pulled out from dock right on schedule at 10:30, expecting a calm and easy crossing. Mostly, we got it. There was a spot of 3-foot seas due to a local thunderstorm, but we arrived at East Bank at 6:30 the next morning, all according to plan. The plan, however, was different from the normal plan. Normally the boats go to West Bank first, then East Bank, then Stetson Bank. This time we did east-west-stetson, because mantas had been spotted at West Bank, and as a result the captain wanted to give the passengers more time at West Bank. Whatever.


East Bank delivered it all: mantas, turtles, sharks, and reasonable visbility. The vis ran high on the bottom (100+ feet), but wasn't so great near the surface (as little as 50 feet at times). Every dive, the divers came out of the water just busting with news of the mantas or the turtles or whatever. I went in a couple of times shortly after the passengers came out, but I never saw mantas or turtles. I did have an up-close-and-personal encounter with a huge nurse shark, which was cool. I was cruising along looking for likely subjects for photographs, when something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head to the left, and this monster nurse shark was swimming up behind me, about two feet to my left. It must have been at least 8 feet long (easily longer than me, at least, and I'm 6'4"), and at least two feet in diameter. I turned to bring the camera to bear on it, thinking "Cool! For once I have the right lens mounted!", but that action spooked the shark and it took off at max speed. Before I could react, it was out of strobe distance, and moving off into the distance. I loved getting that close to such a beautiful creature. Next time I'll remember to turn a little slower. :)

east-bank-2.jpg (32922 bytes)
Some of East Bank's fabulous coral formations

east-bank-4.jpg (25198 bytes)
More of East Bank's cool coral.

We tried to dive oil rig 389 (formerly owned by Mobil, but recently sold to Vastar), which is one of my favorite dives anywhere. However, when we pulled up to dive it, we were told that we needed prior permission--which of course we did not have. Rats. So we headed out and eventually found another, much smaller, rig to dive. Generally the customers came out of the water after less than half an hour, so one would think the dive sucked. Due to one of the passengers being really "helpful," I missed my chance to dive the rig, so I can't say for sure what the dive was like. Oh well.

spotfin-butterfly.jpg (21728 bytes)
A spotfin butterflyfish poses at East Bank

juvy-spanish-hogfish.jpg (22213 bytes)
A juvenile spanish hogfish flirts around inside a sponge.

West Bank was more typical Flower Gardens diving, although in general I prefer East Bank slightly. East Bank runs a little shallower, has more sand flats & cool topography, and is just generally a little more interesting to me. West Bank is the better place for pelagic sightings, though.

My dives at West Bank were not particularly memorable. The visibility had dropped a little, and there were lots of jellies in the water. More manta sightings by the customers, but no turtles. The night dive at West Bank was generally uneventful, although I saw plenty of cool things. I fed the coral (see the Little Cayman trip report for details on that activity), and inadvertently fed a dog snapper.

This huge dog snapper followed me around for the entire dive. It turns out that he was waiting for me to shine my light on some unsuspecting fish, which I did before I realized what the game was. I had my light pointed right at the snapper, but the cone of the beam also landed on a spotfin butterflyfish. SNAP! One less spotfin. It was actually pretty cool watching the snapper go from low gear to top speed in 0.0 seconds, but afterwards I felt really bad for the butterflyfish, because I enabled the snapper to kill it. I was quite depressed for several minutes after that incident. I have to admit that if I had had a speargun, I probably would have shot the snapper (and felt even worse about that, afterwards, but I was really in a funk). Feeding the coral helped lighten my spirits, though. I did warn the passengers about the snapper during the pre-dive briefing, though.


Morning came, and we did three more dives at West Bank before pulling up stakes and heading to Stetson. This is where the itinerary got a little funky, as the passengers had to make a night dive on Stetson without doing a day-time orientation dive there first. Oh well. Everyone seemed to have a good time, although there was a relatively strong current on the bottom, and everyone had to work hard to swim against it. I went in after the passengers in order to untie the side line and have a look around, and that was fun. I saw all sorts of cool things. Spotted drum, sleeping parrotfish, scorpionfish, deer cowries, and mating conchs were the standouts. Tons of black spiny sea urchins, of course. The other cool thing was an enormous school of jacks or chub off in the distance at the wall on buoy #1...they were far enough away that all I could see was general shapes. But while I was watching, one of the school thrashed violently, and the entire school hauled ass as fast as possible...I suspect a shark had grabbed itself some chow, but I couldn't see it at that distance.

The other scheduling funkiness was that the captain scheduled a 5:15 AM dive on Stetson for the next morning--essentially, a second night dive for the passengers. Only 15 of the 24 passengers signed up for it, and 4 of those blew it off at wake-up time. The 11 who went came back smiling, so it must have been good. I went to sleep for two hours at 6:30.
sharpnose-puffer.jpg (18435 bytes)
One of Stetson Bank's many sharpnose puffers.

jacknife.jpg (31594 bytes)
Stetson also delivered plenty of jacknife fish.

Stetson, as usual, delivered some fantastic dives. I found all sorts of juvenile fish, and slack currents gave me the hance to examine some jellies up close in mid-water. For the first time, I got to see the little fish that live inside the jellies.

All in all, it was a good dive trip. The seas were calm: less than three feet the entire trip, and less than two for most of it. "Lake Mexico" was the joke on deck. Water temps were 86 to 88 F at the Gardens, and 85 to 86 F at Stetson.

Dive Log Excerpts

Dive #1: East Bank Buoy #3 Two honeycomb cowfish (one pale, one golden: very strange), a juvenile dusky damselfish (extremely cool fish: silvery-blue with the top half a dark orange, spotted with bright blue spots, and a dark spot ocellated in blue on the dorsal fin), lots more.  Generally a great dive.

Dive #2: East Bank Buoy #3 Sharks!  One silky, one huge nurse shark.   Also lots of ocean triggerfish, many more than I remember seeing in the past.

Dive #3: East Bank Buoy #6 Check dive, setting the line.  Short, dull.  Sand patches were pretty cool.

Dive #4: East Bank Buoy #6 Night dive!  Fed coral, snapper.   Didn't mean to feed snapper, but he saw a spotfin butterflyfish in the cone from my light, and snagged it instantly.

golden-cowfish.jpg (24343 bytes)
I saw this weird golden Honeycomb
Cowfish at East Bank.

Dive #5: West Bank Buoy #2 Not much to tell.  Checked out the sand patches.

Dive #6: West Bank Buoy #2 Pretty dull dive.  An amberjack moved in, which was very cool.  Heavy current on the bottom, but that's where the best vis was, too.  Giant school of blue tangs.

Dive #7: Stetson Bank Buoy #1 Night dive!  Stetson delivers again.  Mating conchs, a deer cowrie, a scorpionfish, lots of sleeping parrotfish, and that was all in sight of the mooring buoy!  On the wall, I found an adult spotted drum and a huge school of jacks.

Dive #8: Stetson Bank Buoy #1 Side-line retrieval, but I stretched it a bit.  After releasing the line, I started to drift back to the stern.  I found a large granite boulder covered in fire coral, so I stopped to take a look. The boulder was loaded: juvy yellowtail damselfish, urchins, and a juvenile blue angelfish.  It was blue with thin yellow & white vertical stripes.  Very bright, very pretty.   The safety stop was cool, too: lots of jellies drifting by.

Dive #9: Stetson Bank Buoy #3  Last dive for the trip, this one with camera and 60mm lens.  Lots of tiny things, juvy yellowtails, juvy blue angels, juvy spanish hogfis.  Saw little fish inside a different kind of jellyfish, too!

Dive Log Details

Dive # Location Depth Time Comments
1 East Bank Buoy #3 73 0:59 Cool honeycomb cowfish
2 East Bank Buoy #3 74 0:55 Sharks!
3 East Bank Buoy #6 70 0:16  
4 East Bank Buoy #6 69 0:41 Night dive!  Fed the coral.
5 West Bank Buoy #2 87 0:57  
6 West Bank Buoy #2 83 0:44 Amberjack, big school of blue tangs
7 Stetson Bank Buoy #1 76 0:47 Night dive! Mating conchs, deer cowrie, scorpion fish.
8 Stetson Bank Buoy #1 76 0:13 Very cool little things on a large granite boulder.
9 Stetson Bank Buoy #3 84 0:48 Jellies & lots of juveniles.

Last modified August 7, 1999


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