In the azure waters off the Texas coast, divers are greeted by a surreal undersea landscape framed by vibrant hues of coral amidst a backdrop dotted with oil and gas platforms. It’s a sight to behold.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
The Gulf of Mexico, located approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Texas coast, is home to some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. Nestled in a deep and cool habitat near the coast, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary boasts an astonishing expanse of coral coverage. However, scientists caution that like all stone formations, these reefs are delicate, and their current sanctuary may only offer limited protection against the effects of warm climate conditions.
Acting superintendent and research coordinator for the federally protected area, Michelle Johnston, expressed, “It’s truly remarkable to witness such an abundance of coral in one location – an experience that eludes most individuals in this era of declining reef health.”
Although moderate bleaching was observed at the sanctuary this year, it paled in comparison to the devastating impact experienced by other reefs during the unprecedented summer heat. Despite this, Johnston highlighted it as one of the primary concerns for the sanctuary’s future. When the water becomes excessively warm, corals expel their vibrant algae, resulting in a bleached appearance. While they can survive if the temperature decreases, they become more vulnerable to diseases and could eventually perish.
Florida’s coral reef, ranked as the world’s third-largest, encountered unheard-of and potentially lethal levels of bleaching over the summer. At least 35 countries and territories across various oceans and seas have witnessed extensive coral bleaching this year, with the Caribbean and northwest Atlantic region observing approximately 10 percent coral cover. In contrast, the Flower Garden Bank boasts an average coral cover exceeding 50 percent in certain areas, significantly distinguishing it from its counterparts in other regions.
Manzello projected climate models, suggesting that all the world’s coral will endure severe bleaching annually by the year 2040.
He remarked, “An annual occurrence of severe bleaching events doesn’t bode well for the future of corals, as it considerably diminishes their ability to recover.”
Sanctuary officials emphasized that even in years with more severe bleaching episodes than the present, the Flower Garden Banks rebounded swiftly owing to its robust overall health and depth. A forthcoming report will assess the sanctuary’s susceptibility to the anticipated ramifications of climate change.
As early as the 1900s, fishermen reported sighting a vibrant underwater display akin to a blooming garden far from the coast. Scientists exploring the area in the 1960s were astounded to discover thriving coral reefs in such an unexpected location.
Johnson attributed the exceptional growth of corals in the Flower Garden Banks to the presence of mountain-like structures called salt domes, which elevated the corals to capture sufficient light, enabling them to thrive at a considerable distance from the shore.
Divers from around the globe visit the Flower Garden Bank to marvel at its reefs and the diverse marine life it hosts, including colorful fish, manta rays, sharks, and sea turtles that frequent the area. Houston attorney Andy Lewis, who became a diver after his initial visit to the sanctuary nearly a decade ago, remarked that it became an integral part of his life. He currently presides over Texas Caribbean Charters, organizing diving trips for approximately 1,000 individuals annually, with half of them returning for subsequent visits.
Describing the experience, Lewis expressed, “It’s a genuine adventure. I enjoy spending time out on the water.”
The boats depart from the vicinity of Galveston, and as they navigate towards the sanctuary, the water transforms from a murky brown—due to sediment deposited by Mississippi River currents near the shore—to a clear, azure hue.
Sharing her dive experience, nurse Lauren Tinnes from Colorado vividly recalled traversing a school of fish and being encompassed by a vast rock formation. She likened the encounter to being amidst a field of blossoms.
The Flower Garden Bank, the only national marine sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico designated to protect an array of 17 distinct banks encompassing 160 square miles (414 square kilometers), was expanded in 2021 with the inclusion of 14 additional banks. Input from a committee representing industries reliant on the Gulf, including oil and gas, recreation, and fishing, was integral to this expansion.
Johnson highlighted that reducing stress is imperative for maintaining the health of the reefs. Measures include ensuring that mooring buoys allow boats to moor without damaging the reefs with their anchors, and eliminating invasive species that can lead to declines in fish populations.
Manzello indicated that such efforts are crucial, especially in light of the collective endeavor to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
He emphasized, “We need to collectively undertake these measures to safeguard coral reefs for the next few decades, as they support a quarter of all marine species at some stage in their life cycles and play an essential role in commercial fishing and tourism.”
Kelly Drinan, the education and outreach specialist for Flower Garden Banks, stressed the importance of conserving healthy corals, as they can potentially serve as reserves to revive deteriorating reefs in the future. In fact, specimens of thriving corals from the sanctuary are being preserved and studied in a laboratory at Moody Gardens on Galveston Island, with the hope of cultivating them for future re-plantation.
Although the massive oil spill following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion did not damage the Flower Garden Banks, the data collected from deep-sea habitat studies within the sanctuary is aiding in the restoration of other damaged reefs in the bay.
Researchers are also investigating the genetic composition of the Flower Garden Banks Coral, including potential variances from the Florida species.
Brooke Zurita, senior biologist at Moody Gardens, emphasized, “The more understanding we gain, the better equipped we are to preserve and protect this reef.”
Stengel reported from Dallas. LaFleur reported from Galveston.
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Jamie Stengel, LM Otero and Kendrea LaFleur, The Associated Press