GALVESTON When you think about Galveston, you probably picture sun and surf, maybe the Pleasure Pier or sometimes seaweed, but you probably don't think about great diving.
Small wonder, when you consider what you see when stand on the seawall and look at the murky chocolate water splashing ashore. But if you go about a hundred miles offshore, you can dive in crystal clear blue water as beautiful as anything in the Caribbean and behold a natural wonder so stunning fishermen a century ago nicknamed it the Texas Flower Garden.
'A lot of people are surprised to find out that there is an exceptional coral reef off the coast of Texas,' said G.P. Schmahl, the superintendent of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. 'When people come down to the shoreline in Galveston and other parts of Texas and see the kind of brown, muddy water, it doesn't even occur to them that there could be a coral reef in these waters,'
In fact, the coral reefs in the sanctuary host a colorful collection of sea life divers travel the world to behold. Curious manta rays and spotted eagle rays approach divers. Colorful parrotfish share the ecosystem with moray eels. And the concentration of coral is larger than anywhere else in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean.
'What I love to see is divers who've never been there,' said Emma Hickerson, a NOAA research coordinator working on the sanctuary. 'And the first time they come out of the water with these huge grins on their faces. And they said they have no idea what was out here. And mostly, they say, 'Wow! There's so much coral!''
The sanctuary actually encompasses three separate areas, underwater salt domes that stand higher than the surrounding ocean floor. Snapper and grouper fishermen who saw the colorful sponges and other marine life under their boats are credited with discovering the ecological wonder in the late 19th century. The area was designated as a national marine sanctuary in 1992 and it's now managed under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
'People will travel the world to see what we have right here off the coast of Texas,' Hickerson said. 'So people will travel the world to see manta rays, tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks, spotted eagle rays, and we've got them right here at the Flower Garden Banks.'
At a time when coral reefs around the world are in decline, Flower Garden Banks is thriving largely because it's so remote it attracts comparatively few divers. National Marine Sanctuaries researchers who routinely visit the site in a specially designed $3.8-million vessel say they've found fragments of clay pigeons on the reef indicating visitors have shot skeet off of their boats in the area. But they say most of the thousands of divers who visit every year take care to avoid disturbing the ecologically sensitive site.
'The Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary is what the Great Barrier Reef used to look like.' said Bill Kiene, a NOAA scientist working with the sanctuary. 'It is actually one of the healthiest coral reefs in all the western hemisphere. And it's very close to Galveston.'
But even for experienced divers, an expedition to Flower Garden Banks can prove challenging. Strong currents churn through the gulf waters surrounding the reefs, which lie about 60 feet beneath the surface.
Still, the dive can be especially rewarding on the one night in August seven to ten days after the full moon -- when the coral spawn.
'It looks like an underwater snowstorm.' Hickerson said. 'Every year we get witness the birth of a new reef. It's a most spectacular event to see.'