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Labor Day '98 Trip Report

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

Over Labor Day weekend, 1998 (Saturday, September 5th through Monday, September 7th) my wife and I, along with a large group of friends (some of whom flew in from Arizona), went diving at the Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary. This is a report of that trip.

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A white-spotted filefish at East Bank

Annemarie and I have declared the Labor Day Flower Gardens tirp to be an annual event. This, indeed, was our third annual Labor Day trip, and we were looking forward to a great time at the Gardens. The weather in the Gulf had been uncertain and rough all year, with Rinn Boats cancelling many of the scheduled dive trips. In fact, the trip immediately preceeding ours had been cancelled due to the conditions at sea....but a high pressure area had moved into the Gulf, things were settling down, and we looked to have a great time.

Alas, it wasn't to be. The seas never really settled down from the previous storms, leaving us to contend with 3-foot seas the whole time...not bad, but not the glassy calm we had expected. Then things started to go south, or as long-time Rinn divemaster Kenny Cruse likes to say, "the wheels fell off." The seas were rough enough on Saturday evening that the captain cancelled the night dive. On Sunday, the weather worsened through the day, leaving us with 6-foot seas in the evening. Captain Frank did not cancel that night dive, since he had already cancelled Saturday's night dive, but he advised all squeamish or inexperienced divers to sit it out. Most took the advice. Of those who didn't, several had a really rough time of it (see below).

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A queen angel fish poses in mid water for me.

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A French angel fish at Stetson. Note the bleaching of the fire coral below the angelfish!

Finally, the wheels did fall off. I awoke around 5am to hear the sound of the engines running full-out. "Hey, this isn't the boat moving between buoys," I thought, "we're heading for shore!" Indeed. Captains Frank and Pierre had received a weather advisory, and terminated the trip early. We did no dives on Monday. The captains made a good decision, it turned out, as the seas reached 15 feet late in the day on Monday. We lost a day of diving, but we wouldn't have been diving had we been out there.

So, due to the weather, we did only 7 dives instead of the scheduled 12. Worse still, the conditions at the Gardens were terrible. I don't know if it was due to the weather, the water temperature (very high, exceeding 87F at East & West banks, and 85+ at Stetson!), or just a random fluctuation, but the coral was in bad shape, the visibility was low (no more than 80, which I consider to be abnormally low for the Gardens), and the fish life was almost non-existent. Perhaps the fish headed for deeper, cooler water. I don't know.

Coral Bleaching

I saw plenty of coral bleaching at East Bank and West Bank, but I was totally unprepared for the white-out at Stetson Bank. Stetson doesn't have much in the way of coral, just patches of fire coral on most of the rocks, and a large region of madracis coral known as "Sierra Madracis." This year, though, the fire coral was completely (as in 100%) bleached out, leaving the rock ridges of Stetson looking like snow-capped mountains. I was shocked when I looked down after hitting the water at Stetson; the white-white bleached coral was immediately apparent, even from the surface. As for the madracis coral, we didn't dive Sierra Madracis this trip, but what madracis coral I saw was over-run with a leafy green algae.

I've been told that the coral bleaching was expected, due to the abnormally high water temperatures, but I haven't heard anything about the algae. I suspect that the same explanation holds. I haven't been back to the Gardens since Labor Day, so I can't say whether the coral has un-bleached itself, or whether the algae has died off. I'm hoping to make it out there in early 1999, weather permitting, so I hope to have a chance to survey the scene again. Like a complete moron, I forgot to take pictures of the coral bleaching and the algae infestation at Stetson, so I won't have photographic evidence to compare with 1999 photos...but I'l be sure to take some documentary photos in February if I can.

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The tops of the fire coral are bleached at Stetson Bank. (September 1998)

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The way the fire coral at Stetson Bank normally looks. This photo was taken in July of 1998.

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The coral around this blackhead blenny's home is completely bleached. (September 1998)

Dive Log Excerpts

Dive #1: West Bank Buoy #5. Low light conditions, because this was an early-morning dive, and the sky was cloudy. The whole dive was a blue-gray experience. I saw a big conch (at least, I think it was a conch), a two-foot tiger grouper, and a school of what looked like juvenile barracuda. I'm not at all sure that they were barracuda, but they were small, silvery, elongated, and they schooled up in the hundreds. They also had greenish-yellow bands on the dorsal side. I would have taken pictures for ID purposes, but I had the wide-angle lens mounted. Oh well.

Dive #2: West Bank Buoy #5. Better light made for a much more interesting time. The best part was watching a tiger grouper change color at a cleaning station; I didn't know they could do that. First it had distinct stripes, then none during the cleaning, then distinct stripes again after it swam off.

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I couldn't resist re-shooting this shot from last year's trip. This time I remembered to turn off my strobes! The fish in the picture are Bermuda Chub. They school up under the boats at every buoy out there.

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A spotted moray peeks out from his lair.

Dive #3: East Bank Buoy #4. Very low light due to passing storm. Swam the sand flats, had a blast.

Dive #4: East Bank Buoy #4. Ed found a spotted moray. Other finds include a very large crevalle jack, and a dog snapper. Another dark dive.

Dive #5:
Stetson Bank Buoy #2. As usual, Stetson delivers! 2 morays, an arrow crab hiding out near an urchin, a juvenile french angel, lots of adult angels (french, queen, townsend), smooth trunkfish, creole fish. The strange thing is that I didn't see a single scorpion fish!

Dive #6: Stetson Bank Buoy #2. We swam out into the flat in search of scorpionfish, but again no luck. Where have they all gone? We did find some huge french angels, another juvy french angel, and a jacknife fish. I think this is the same jacknife fish I saw in July; the terrain where I found it looked awfully familiar. Where did the second one go, though?

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The same jacknife fish I saw at Stetson in July!

Dive #7: Stetson Bank Buoy #2. Night Dive! Eric Marsh and I were two of the divers stupid enough to get in the water on this dive, but at least we were smart enough to leave the cameras behind. The seas were running 5-6 feet, which makes for...um..."entertaining" exits at the end of the dive. The highlight of the dive was finding a cubbyu, which was the first I had ever seen. It was a dusky grayish brown, kind of like a cross between a french grunt, a night sergeant, and a spotted drum. I wasn't completely sure of what it was until I checked Humann's fish ID book after the dive. We also found a scallop on the ground at the bottom, and were treated to the sight of it swimming through the water like a set of novelty teeth. What a hoot! On a serious note, the exit from the water was really rough. One diver got conked on the head by the ladders (ouch!), and another pair surfaced away from the boat and had trouble getting back. I didn't have much trouble, but I've done over 50 dives out there now, so I know the shtick. Probably would have been better if Captain Frank had canned that dive, too.

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A french angelfish cruises the reef at East Bank.

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Our friendly angelfish stares me in the face while Ed Christians watches on.

Dive Log Details

Dive # Location Depth Time Comments
1 West Bank, Buoy #5 82 0:39
2 West Bank, Buoy #5 73 0:38
3 East Bank, Buoy #4 77 0:39
4 East Bank, Buoy #4 77 0:38
5 Stetson Bank, Buoy #2 90 0:39
6 Stetson Bank, Buoy #2 86 0:43
7 Stetson Bank, Buoy #2 90 0:39

Last Modified December 28, 1998

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