In the warm, subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 100 miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border, there lies a secret garden. East and West Flower Garden Banks, and nearby Stetson Bank, are unique underwater features festooned with colorful sponges, textured sea plants, and myriad marine life living among more than 20 species of hard corals. Arising some 450 feet from the depths of the Gulf are underwater mountains called salt domes, upon which the banks’ reef communities reside in waters from 55 to 130 feet deep.
NOAA’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary protects these special marine areas, each of which has its own set of boundaries. Discovered at the turn of the 20th century by fishermen in search of snapper and grouper, the banks’ colorful reefs are the northernmost in the continental United States. The closest tropical reefs lie 400 miles away, off the coast of Tampico, just north of Veracruz, Mexico.
Marine species observed in the sanctuary include graceful manta rays, gentle sea turtles, agile hammerheads, and gargantuan whale sharks — not to mention the boulder-sized brain and star corals for which the Flower Garden Banks are famous. Due to its more northerly location and lower average temperature than that of Flower Gardens, Stetson Bank is home to smaller coral colonies and dense arrays of large and vivid sponges. While the sanctuary is best known for fantastic coral reefs, it also hosts thriving coral habitats in deeper waters — explore these wonderful mesophotic (twilight" zone) communities.
While it may not be easy to reach the Sanctuary — you’ll have to travel by boat — the rewards are great for intrepid travelers who wish to experience the wonders of its pristine offshore reefs. Several commercial diving and fishing charter operators take people out to the sanctuary and to nearby oil and gas platforms.
Once you’ve brushed up on proper reef etiquette, you can:
As a travel destination, few places on the planet can compete with the diversity of the National Marine Sanctuary System. This article is part of an ongoing series to highlight what you can see and do at some of our most iconic natural and cultural marine resources. Check out our other sanctuary stories: