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Labor Day 1997 Flower Gardens Trip Report

Text and images Copyright (C) 1997 David M. Read. All rights reserved.

From 30 Aug 1997 to 1 Sep 1997, my wife and I dove the Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary, aboard the M/V Fling. This is a report of that dive trip. All of the images below are hyperlinked.  Click on any image to see a larger version.
This trip started out looking very promising. A huge high-pressure area had lodged itself over the Gulf of Mexico, and the nearest storm (just a regular storm, not a hurricane) was over the middle of Cuba. All of this made us think that we were in for good weather, calm seas, and good dive conditions. For the most part, we were not disappointed.

We were a little surprised (and a little disappointed) when we arrived at the dock on Friday night, only to discover that our boat assignment had been switched. In 1996, we sailed on the M/V Spree, and we were supposed to be on the Spree again this year. However, when we got to the dock, we were told that some juggling had been done, and our dive shop's passengers had been reassigned to the Fling. No biggie, except that the repeat-customer business is pretty strong around Labor Day, and we knew that some of the friends we had made on the previous year's trip would be on the Spree. As we discovered later, however, a significant portion of last year's people ended up on the Fling, so we couldn't complain too much.

I won't go into details on the dive operation here; you can read about the boats in one of the other Flower Gardens trip reports (Labor Day 1996, February 1997). The M/V Fling is laid out basically the same way the M/V Spree is. There are a few minor differences, but not enough to mention.

Random tip: although some people claim that getting a berth amidships reduces sea-sickness, I still think that the place to be on the Fling and Spree is in the forward berthing area.  The reason for this is that the forward area has its own head, while the midships area has none (but is within easy reach of the two galley heads). Who cares? Well, there's always a wait for the galley heads, and the midships people hardly ever think to check the forward head (after all, it is belowdecks). As a result, the head in the forward berthing area is almost always empty, and merely a few feet from your bunk if you're up there. If you can tolerate the pitching motion up front, it really is the place to be.

Onto the diving details. For the most part, conditions at the Flower Gardens were excellent this time around. At West FG Banks, we had 85F water, 80-foot vis, calm seas, and no current whatsoever. East Banks were similar: 85F water, 60-foot vis, slightly rougher seas, and only very mild (less than 0.25 knot) currents. Stetson Bank was a little more challenging, especially on the last day of the trip.  The water temp sat at 84F, the vis was a sparkling 100 feet, but the seas got a little higher (maybe 2-3 feet) and the current picked up. Generally the dives at Stetson were blessed with small (~0.25 knot) currents, but the last dive at Stetson was a hard-breathing dive with a current of at least half a knot. Of course, I'm really awful at estimating current speeds, but I can at least tell you that I had no trouble maneuvering on any dive except that last dive, where I was able to swim against the current, but I had to want to do it.

This was also the first Flower Gardens trip where I did not see any sort of large pelagic critters. No whale sharks, no mantas, no spotted eagle rays, no nurse sharks, no nothing. Other divers saw one or two nurse sharks, but that was about it. Based on my other experiences, I think this was sort of unusual. Time will tell, as I make more dives out there.

Don't think that the diving wasn't interesting, though. There were plenty of new and unusual things on the reef, plus the usual host of fish, eels, crustaceans, etc.

There was one annoyance that I must report. Rinn Boats has always enforced a 2.5-hour surface interval between dives. This doesn't bother me; when you do all your diving in square profiles at 70-80 feet, a nice long surface interval sounds like a good idea. However, the way the interval worked in the past is this: approximately every 2.5-3.0 hours, the divemaster would hold a short briefing, announce "the dive gate is open; as soon as your two-and-a-half hours is up, you may feel free to enter the water," and people would start diving. Apparently someone cheated on the 2.5 hours within the last year, and got bent. Now Rinn has a new policy regarding divers entering the water: 2.5 hours after the last diver exited the water from the previous dive, the dive gate opens and divers can start their dives. The impact of this seemingly small change is horrendous. Formerly, the divers would bunch up to enter the water on the first dive, but the spacing would even out on subsequent dives, as different people reached their 2.5 hours at different times. The way it is now, the huge bunch-up of divers waiting to get in the water occurs every dive! The hang lines get crowded at the end of the dive, there's always a wait to get on a ladder to exit, the camera hang lines are always occupied, and getting into and out of the water is generally more of a hassle. Moreover, the new system stretches out the dive day. The night dive on our first day didn't roll around until after 10pm, whereas is was around 8 pm last year. Folks, it's very tiring doing a night dive which ends at 11pm when you're going to get up at 6:30 the next morning to start diving again!

I can't say I'm pleased with the change. If you agree with me (especially if you have experienced both new and old systems!), please take the time to drop Rinn Boats an email, explaining why you prefer the old system.

Here are some excerpts from my dive log:

Dive 1: 7am, Saturday 30 Aug 1997 West Bank
OK dive in general, but my pony tank came loose during the dive, which made for some interesting equipment adjustments. Returning to the Flower Gardens is the same eye opener that the first dive of a vacation always is. The "usual suspects" were out in force at the West Bank: parrot fish, rock beauties, damselfish of several varieties, black durgons, and huge schools of brown chromis. The highlight of the dive was watching two parrotfish fight vigorously for about five minutes.
Dive 2: 11:00am, Saturday 30 Aug 1997 West Bank
A much better dive all around. Photo ops abounded, especially when a giant school (at least 50 members) of blue tangs swam right in front of me. Thanks be that I had the 24 mm lens on the camera! Other participants in the dive: queen angelfish, blue angelfish, whitespotted filefish, honeycomb cowfish, rock beauties, and more. There's one fish I can't ID; it looks like a fairy basslet, except that the dorsal side is blue rather than purple. Looking into the matter, Humann's book IDs it as either a Cocoa Damselfish or a Beaugregory. The difference is a spot at the base of the tail. I'll keep an eye out on the next dive...  Also saw a few ocean triggerfish cruising around, and a school of chub (bermuda or orange, I can't tell) hanging out a few feet beneath the boat.
Dive 3: 3:00pm, Saturday 30 Aug 1997 East Bank
The mystery fish is a cocoa damselfish, identified by a spot at the base of the tail. Plenty of other fish, including a huge school of some sort of baitfish, and another school of chub under the boat. Took some pix of a very small moray, which I think is a chestnut moray. I'll have to wait on the photos to find out for sure. Also say several large (~2 foot) tiger grouper cruising the reef.
Dive 4: 6:30 pm, Saturday 30 Aug 1997 East Bank
Very cool dive. Lots of great stuff, including the largest balloonfish I have ever seen (at least 2 feet long). I didn't know they got that large!  Also saw (and photographed) a juvenile marbled grouper, quite a beautiful fish. More filefish, too. Great fun watching a honeycomb cowfish 'digging' in the sand; it blew little jets of water out of its mouth, and then plucked something out of the sand it had cleared. We watched it do this for a couple of minutes.

Dive 5: 10:00pm, Saturday 30 Aug 1997 East Bank
Night Dive!  This one was pretty dull, as night dives go. We saw a giant lobster which I thought was a regular old slipper lobster, but Humann's Reef Creatures book has convinced me was a Spanish Slipper Lobster. Also saw a giant spiny lobster, lots of little jumping shrimp, urchins everywhere, christmas tree worms with their "tongues" extended (never seen that before, so I'm not exactly sure what they are), puffers, squirrelfish, parrotfish sleeping, a trunkfish on auto-pilot, and a huge pearly white sponge uncrusting a rock under a ledge. Also saw a tiny juvenile spotted drum.

Dive 6: 7 am, Sunday 31 Aug 1997 East Bank. Main camera batteries died during this dive, which cost me some good photo ops. Otherwise a good dive. I did manage to get a couple of pix of a juvenile spotted drum, and another of the largest spotted moray I have ever seen (it was about 8 inches in diameter).

Dive 7: 11:00am, Sunday 31 Aug 1997 East Bank
Spent much of the dive looking for the spot on the reef where the spotted drum and the moray had been. No luck. The winds & currents shifted too much, and the boat swang around on the mooring line, so basically we were diving a completely different section of reef.
Dive 8: 4:00pm, Sunday 31 Aug 1997 Stetson Bank
Stetson is cool, as always. Plenty to see on the "lunar landscape," including a scorpionfish, juvenile french and queen angelfish, and giant specimens of adult queen & french angels.

Dive 9: 9:00pm, Sunday 31 Aug 1997 Stetson Bank
Night Dive! Lots of urchins and bristle worms, and for some reason, many atlantic deer cowries out and about. Saw a huge spotted moray free-swimming, lots of hermit crabs, and two huge decorator crabs. One of the decorator crabs had a sponge the size of a dinner plate on its back, a sponge which resembled a mantle of amethyst. Brittle stars out feeding, scallops with their mantles extended, etc.

Dive 10: 7am, Monday 1 Sep 1997 Stetson Bank
All the regular fish, plus a tiny moray sticking its head out of a little nook.

Dive 11: 11am, Monday 1 Sep 1997 Stetson Bank
Good dive, but a ripping current made it challenging. We saw five different scorpionfish, but the highlight of the dive was finding a baby smooth trunkfish, an autonomous mobile pea-sized fish, black with yellow spots. Very hard to photograph (focussing difficulties), but entertaining to watch. Got a scare midway through the dive when I spotted a juvenile queen angel down in a little cluster of rocks. I was framing up the photo when I felt a sharp prick on my right thigh. When I looked back at my leg to find out whether I had bumped into rock or coral, I was greeted by a scorpionfish, dorsal spines extended, right where my leg had been!!! I spent a very anxious thirty seconds examining my diveskin for holes until I figured that I would have felt the pain had I been envenomed.

Dive 12: 3pm, Monday 1 Sep 1997 Oil Rig 393-C (inshore)
Rig dive! Lots of interesting things to see, including a cluster of tesselated blennies (great macro subjects), and a leopard toadfish. Visibility sucked (25 feet max), but currents and surge were light to non-existant, so I can't complain too much.

Photos which I had no room to include in the text:

Yellowtail snappers
Scorpionfish closeup
Whitespotted filefish
Juvenile threespot damselfish

Dive log details:

Dive #



Depth Time


1 7 AM Saturday

West Bank



Huge school of brown chromis, fighting parrotfish
2 11 AM Saturday

West Bank



Giant school of blue tangs, some ocean triggerfish
3 3 PM Saturday

East Bank



Chestnut moray, tiger groupers
4 6:30 PM Saturday

East Bank



Juvenile marbled grouper, honeycomb cowfish digging for food
5 10 PM Saturday

East Bank



Night dive!
6 7 AM Sunday

East Bank



Spotted drum, huge spotted moray
7 11 AM Sunday

East Bank



Looked for moray from dive #6
8 4 PM Sunday Stetson Bank



Scorpionfish, juvenile french angel, juvy queen angel
9 9 PM Sunday Stetson Bank



Night Dive! Free-swimming moray, lots of crabs.
10 7 AM Monday Stetson Bank



Tiny moray, very cute
11 11 AM Monday Stetson Bank



Baby smooth trunkfish, lots of scorpionfish
12 3 PM Monday Oil Rig 393-C



Rig dive! Tesselated blenies, toadfish, ocean triggerfish.

Photographic Notes:

All the photos in this document were taken by me on this trip. I used a Nikon N90s (well, actually, an F90x, but they're the same camera) in an Ikelite N90 housing. Some of the photos were taken with a Nikkor 24mm lens in a dome port, but most were taken with the micro-Nikkor 60mm lens behind a flat port. This versatile lens does great fish portraits, and goes down to 1:1 for macro stuff. It's really a dream to work with. All photos were lit by a single Ikelite SubStrobe 200 in TTL mode.

I used Fuji Provia 100, downrated to ISO 80, in all of these photos.

Scanning of these photos was done by me, using my brand-new Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart scanner, a relatively spiffy unit which can scan slides, negatives, and prints up to 4"x6". I'm still deciding whether or not to keep the thing, but the first go-round was pretty promising, so... Anyway, post-scan processing was done with Adobe Photoshop 4.0. As usual, I tried to keep electronic processing to a minimum: brightness/contrast, color balancing, cropping. I used Photoshop's "auto levels" tool on just about every image.

Last modified December 28, 1998

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