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Labor Day 1996 Flower Gardens Trip Report

Text and images Copyright (C) 1996 David M. Read.  All rights reserved.

Over Labor Day weekend, August 31- September 2, my fiancee, Anne, and I went on a dive trip to the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary aboard the M/V Spree. This is a report of that trip.

Before I start in with the customary report on the non-diving part of the trip, let me throw out the two most important words concerning our trip: Whale Shark. Actually, I should list the three most important words: Two Whale Sharks. That's right: we saw two different whale sharks during our three-day trip. Easily the most incredible experience of my diving life. But more on that later...

OK. Here are the aforementioned customary non-diving details.

We backed in to this trip on the Spree by accident; we had put our names on a waiting list for the trip at the local dive shop on the theory that adding your name to a waiting list costs nothing and commits you to nothing. Three weeks later, the dive shop called to say that two people had canceled their trip. The dive shop called everyone on the waiting list rather than going down the list in order, which worked in our favor (we were last on the list) because I work at home and got the call right away. By the time the other people on the waiting list got home to find the message on their answering machine, I had already paid for the trip.

We left Austin to drive down to Freeport at 4:30 PM, having been told that the drive was about 4 hours long. You board the boat at 9 PM, so if you get there early, you'll end up standing around on the dock. If no-one else tells you, be sure to bring the most powerful bug repellent you can find; the mosquitoes near the dock are huge, vicious, and relentless. Fortunately, they're also slow, and easily swatted. Anyway, it turns out that the 4-hour estimate was dead on target, but that was mostly because we endured some torrential rains, slowing our progress. The return to Austin, in clear weather, took a little less than 4 hours, including a stop for dinner along the way.

The Spree left the dock right on time, at about 11:30 PM on Friday night. When we woke up Saturday morning (6 am), the Spree was just pulling up to a mooring buoy at the West Flower Gardens bank. By 7 am divers were in the water. This is the way a day on the Spree usually goes: you wake up early, dive right away (after a small snack-like breakfast), eat a full-sized breakfast during the first surface interval, dive again at about 10:30, eat lunch during the second surface interval, dive again at around 2 PM, nap during the ensuing interval, dive again at 5:30, eat dinner and rest during the next surface interval, and do a night dive at around 9 PM.

The weather for this trip could not have been more perfect. We had overcast skies for the first couple of days, but the tradeoff was light winds, calm seas (around 1 foot most of the time), good visibility (in excess of 100 feet at the Flower Gardens, and about 50 feet at Stetson Bank), and little to no currents for all but two or three dives. Everyone on the trip told us how uncommon the conditions were, but so far Anne and I are batting 1.000 on Flower Gardens trips. I'd be willing to put up with bad conditions in the future, but I'm glad our first trip was an easy one. We really only had about three hours of bad weather, during the drive to Stetson Bank. A little squall blew in, making for a bumpy ride. The rest of the time, gentle rolling was the worst we had to contend with. The only problem is, a day after the trip as I sit here typing this, my inner ear still thinks it's at sea. The monitor seems to sway gently from side to side before my eyes.

We had been warned that the Flower Gardens was considered 'advanced diving,' which worried us a little because as of the start of the trip Anne and I had only 27 dives in our log books, having been certified in October '95. It turns out that the diving was easily within our reach, although I gather we lucked out on the conditions. We also discovered that we were among the least experienced divers on the boat, with all but five of the 33 divers owning divemaster cards or better. OTOH, there was one woman on the boat who kept trying to inflate her BC by pressing the dump button, so I guess we can't feel too bad! For any new divers considering going to the Flower Gardens, here's my summary for you: be ready to do some 'deep' diving, because everything out there is at least 70 feet down. If you don't have a computer yet, go buy one (if you look around and haggle a little, you can find a Sherwood Source or a USDivers Matrix or an Oceanic Prodigy for less than $200). And don't blame me if the weather sucks and you have to contend with 6-foot seas and strong currents. Personally, I felt completely comfortable on this trip, but your mileage may vary, of course. Call your dive shop or Rinn Boats for more information about what conditions you might expect based on what time of year you want to go out there.

OK, enough of that. On to the diving!

As I said, we made 12 dives over the three-day trip: 5 the first day, 4 the second, and 3 the last. The first day we did 2 dives at the West Flower Gardens Bank. Then the captain moved the boat to a nearby oil rig (Mobil HI-A389) for a rig dive. Then we moved again to the East Flower Gardens Bank, where we did one last afternoon dive, and a night dive. The next day we did two more morning dives at the East Flower Gardens, moved to Stetson Bank, did one dive on Stetson and then a night dive on Stetson. Monday morning had two dives on Stetson and then we headed towards shore. Along the way we stopped at another oil rig (A349), and then went back to port.

Here are the high points from the weekend (the dive numbers refer to this weekend, not my actual dive numbers):

Dive # 1 (West Flower Gardens Buoy #3): Ten minutes into the dive, a 22-foot whale shark put in an appearance. Who would have guessed these creatures would be so playful? It stayed around for about 20 minutes while we swam with it, petted it, photographed it, and even rode it. I was amazed that a creature that large could be so gentle and uncaring, but then again I suppose its size pretty much makes it immune to most predators. It certainly didn't seem to care that we were around, except that it swam away only to turn and make another pass through the crowd of divers. It repeated this action at least twice, making at least three passes through our group. Clearly it did not object to our presence!

I have a rule with myself : "no cameras on the first dive of the day," but I took mine along "just in case a whale shark shows up." I am definitely glad that I bent my rule that particular dive. I think the rule in the future will be "no using cameras on the first dive of the day," with an obvious exception being made if something really spectacular happens.

As if one appearance weren't enough, our whale shark buddy popped up at the surface about twenty minutes into our surface interval, nudging the inflatable chase boat as if to say "hey, play time isn't over! Where did everyone go?" Needless to say, we all put on our snorkeling gear and went back into the water for another half hour spent swimming with the graceful giant. This is where I got the size estimate; one of the boat DMs hadn't made his first dive yet, so he hopped in and swam down to ride the whale shark. I "measured" 3-1/2 "Chucks" from head to tail, plus a couple of feet for the tail fins. Asking Chuck for his height completed the calculation, at 20-22 feet. The dive masters told me that made it a "juvenile" whale shark. Either way, junior was beautiful, large and grey, with plenty of white spots. If you rub whale shark skin very lightly, it quivers like Jell-O. Rub it the right way (towards the tail) and it's smooth as silk. Rub it the wrong way (towards the head) and it feels like 100-grit sandpaper. Truly, that whale shark was the most awe-inspiring creature I have ever seen in nature. Perhaps whales might be more impressive, but I have never seen a whale while diving.

We got back on the boat to finish our surface interval. About thirty minutes later, a Manta Ray surfaced on the port side of the boat, slowly swimming towards the bow. I donned my snorkel stuff again and went in pursuit of this magnificent creature, along with the one or two other divers who weren't napping by that point. I swam next to the manta while he/she did barrel rolls over and over, and I took half a roll of photos all the while. This manta did not like to be touched, and after a few strokes from one of the other snorkelers, our ray got pissed off and cruised away. The ten minutes I spent with it were plenty fun, though!

The only problem I had during this dive was that I was pretty strongly underweighted (at least 3 or 4 pounds). Since I had been diving in the Gulf just two months before this, I had a pretty good handle on how much weight I needed. My fiancee (actually 'girlfriend' at that point, but read on) also reported that she was underweighted. I was confused by this situation, but when I also noted how much a little sea water in my mask made my eyes sting, I put two and two together and asked the DM if the water in the Flower Gardens was more saline than in other places in the Gulf. Sure enough, it is. Bring more weight than you usually wear, perhaps as much as 25%. I normally wear about 15 lbs, but I had to wear 19 at the West Flower Gardens Bank. I went back down to my normal load at Stetson Bank.

Dive #2 was "nothing special," compared to swimming with a whale shark. Lots of interesting terrain to explore, and plenty more fish. I spent so much time on the first dive playing with the whale shark that I really didn't get a good look at what the reef had to offer. Dive #2 was spent looking at the reef.

The sea life at the Flower Gardens is fantastic. No soft coral, but plenty of variety in the hard corals. We also saw plenty of various fish, including several kinds of damselfish and butterflyfish, snapper, triggerfish, both French and Queen angelfish (giant ones, too), morays (although not as many as other places), lots of trunkfish, tangs, spadefish, filefish, parrotfish (of course), wrasses, hogfish, goatfish, etc. The Flower Gardens also boast a Christmas Tree Worm (or two or three or four...) on every coral head. It's kind of fun to look at all the worms and note the differences in colors and patterns.

Dive #3, and the Mobil HI-A389 oil rig, was a blast. This oil rig stands in over 400 feet of water, so it truly is a 'blue water' dive. That was a new experience for me. Plenty of interesting stuff growing on a swimming around the rig. Tube sponges, some brain coral, lots of blennies, barracuda, French angelfish (including a beautiful juvenile: black with yellow stripes), some giant puffers. lots of jacks, etc. A medium-stiff current popped up, making it difficult to swim around much, but station-keeping in one place worked for me.

Dives 4, 5, 6, and 7 were at the East Flower Gardens, at buoy #2. I have to admit that all things considered, one or two dives at East Flower Gardens Bank would have been enough. The scenery is about the same as the scenery at West Flower Gardens Bank, and the fish life is about identical. Stetson Banks offers more varied terrain. The fish life, although probably not too different from the Flower Gardens Banks, has not much of anyplace to hide, so it's all out there for you to see.

However, there is one reason I am glad we stayed at East Flower Gardens long enough to do our first night dive. About half an hour before sunset, another whale shark showed up at the surface, nudging the stern ladders and asking us to play. Oh, my god. This one was over 30 feet long, and just as playful as the first. I geared up with snorkel stuff, and swam a good 10 minutes with the whale shark before he cruised off. DM Chuck jumped in with his scooter, caught up with the descending leviathan, and rode off into the distance. When he finally came back, he told us that he had ridden the shark for over half an hour before the sun went down and he gave up. The Flower Gardens were Whale Shark city for us!

The night dive (dive #5) was fun. Lots of creatures came out to play, including morays, octopus (although I didn't get to see any), and more night life.

We moved to Stetson Bank after our second dive Sunday morning, which is why we got only 4 dives on Sunday; the drive to Stetson takes long enough that it eats up a dive. On a two-day trip to the Flower Gardens, they move to Stetson Saturday night so it doesn't impact the diving. Truth be told, I didn't miss the extra dive, because I needed the off-gassing time anyway.

Dives 8,9,10, and 11 were at Stetson Bank. We arrived at the mooring buoy at about 3:00, and by 3:45 we were in the water. Stetson Bank, as mentioned above, doesn't offer much in the way of coral. It's not really a reef, but more of a geologic uprising in the sea floor. The terrain is really different and beautiful; pinnacles of rock rise 20 or 30 feet above the main floor, and there are raised ridges of sandstone everywhere, running for dozens of yards in parallel lines. Since there's not much coral, there are not many cracks and crannies for the fish to hide in. As a result, all the fish are out in the open, swimming around with no place to hide. This makes for some great sightseeing, between the fish and the oddball terrain. There's a "wall" at one end of the banks, although it's more of a gentle slope than a true wall. We saw some truly giant French Angelfish finning around, and some unusually large Queen Angelfish, too. There weren't as many Christmas Tree worms as at the Flower Gardens, but the spiny urchins were out in force. There were also supposedly dozens of Scorpionfish sitting around, but my feeble detection skills were not up to the task and I didn't see any except the one un-camouflaged rockfish sitting out in the sand.

The night dive at Stetson was magic. The ridged and raised terrain made for some strange sights as various divers floated at various heights above different sections of the bank. It's kind of spooky to see green cyalumes floating mysteriously at various altitudes above the floor. Anyway, on to the sea life. The spiny urchins were out in force, walking around on their spines. There were cowries prowling around, and a few whelks, too. Lots of hermit-crab shells were on the move. I saw two spotted morays doing their thing, several giant puffers, two or three scribbled filefish (before that dive I didn't know they could change the color of their stripes/spots), and plenty of other night-time predators out looking for dinner. The terrain made for easy navigation, which I enjoyed.

Dives 10 and 11 were Monday morning at Stetson, more of that fabulous terrain. I can't get enough of it! Dive #10 was a special one for me, because at a depth of 63 feet, about 15 feet above the reef while hanging on the downline, I asked my girlfriend Anne to marry me. She gave me a nod and an OK sign, and we cruised up the line to make our safety stop.

Dive #12 was at an oil rig on the way back to port. It was a shallow, short dive with not much to see. I really went on the dive only because I wanted a good macro shot of a blennie, and they were plentiful (one in almost every barnacle). Other divers went all the way to the bottom (only 68 feet), where they found two toadfish and a bonnethead shark. I'm told the toadfish was "exactly the same as a 'Cozumel toadfish,' except that these aren't in Cozumel.' Unfortunately for me, I didn't explore enough to see it. I think there's a message there.

All in all, it's hard to say anything bad about this trip. Two whale sharks, one Manta Ray, one marriage proposal, and a ton of great diving. We definitely intend to go back next year, probably over Labor Day weekend again.

Finally, here's a summary of our dive locations, depths and times. Keep in mind when you read this table that we were diving with computers, doing multilevel dives, and that the bottom times listed are significantly longer than the time we actually spent at the maximum depth shown. On average, I'd say we never spent more than 25 minutes or so actually at the bottom.

Dive # When Location Max. Depth Time Comments
1 Saturday AM West Flower Gardens 72 feet 38 minutes Whale Shark! Swam with whale shark at 60 feet up to 40 feet, then snorkeled with same shark at surface. Later snorkeled with manta ray at surface
2 Saturday AM West Flower Gardens 75 39 Hard coral, lots of fish, Christmas Tree worms everywhere!
3 Saturday PM Oil Rig Mobil HI-A389 73 45 SPONGES! The rig is covered with them. Barnacles, too, the empty ones hosting blennies
4 Saturday PM East Flower Gardens 67 37 Another Whale Shark! This one came to the surface and invited us to snorkel with it before the night dive started.
5 Saturday Night East Flower Gardens 68 29 Night Dive! Phosphorescent wake behind you, if you look back. Lots of urchins and bristle worms out hunting, plus a moray free-swimming in search of some food...
6 Sunday AM East Flower Gardens 70 42 Cleaning stations everywhere
7 Sunday AM East Flower Gardens 76 36 ?
8 Sunday PM Stetson Bank 80 33 Stetson's stark landscape is great! Rock Beauties are everywhere, along with a few giant French Angelfish
9 Sunday Night Stetson Bank 78 42 Night Dive! Stetson comes alive at night, as everything comes out to feed and hunt.
10 Monday AM Stetson Bank 84 39 Spent the whole dive looking for scorpionfish, didn't find any.   Other divers saw them but I missed them... proposed to Anne at end of dive!
11 Monday AM Stetson Bank 86 31 Swam to edge of bank, saw the drop-off into deep water.
12 Monday PM Oil Rig A439 62 30 Another rig dive, this time in shallow water. Giant schools of   lookdown fish, a few sunfish, barracuda, and more blennie-inhabited barnacles.

Last modified December 27, 1998

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