Down Under

You don't have to travel far to see treasures in the sea. They're right here.

Texas' close proximity to Mexico makes it a good place to be a scuba diver. Cozumel is only two hours from Houston by plane, and other prime scuba diving spots in the Caribbean are not much farther. But you don't have to go that far south for good diving. Just travel about one hundred miles southeast of Freeport, out into the Gulf of Mexico. It is there, at the Flower Garden Banks, that you will find some of the healthiest coral colonies in the world—which makes for fine diving.

Since 1996, the 42 square miles of ocean floor at the Flower Garden Banks have been designated a National Marine Sanctuary (one of thirteen in the country). There are three coral-covered salt domes that rise to within 66 feet of the ocean's surface: the West and East banks and the Stetson Bank. These banks support roughly 21 species of coral, making them reefs that in turn support more than 200 fish species. (During the winter, it is too cool for the hard corals found at Stetson Bank to form into reefs, but the claystone formation does have a thriving coral and sponge community.) In fact, all kinds of marine life come to these banks to feed; in addition to the loggerhead turtles and the spotted moray eels that make this place home, winter visitors include schools of hammerhead sharks and Atlantic manta rays.

All of this makes the Flower Garden Banks a first-class dive destination, so last June my friend and I spent the weekend at sea with thirty other scuba diehards aboard the M. V. Fling. Twice before we had had trips to the Flower Garden Banks canceled at the last minute because of bad weather, but on this particular weekend the weather had sided with us.

After only a couple of wrong turns in Freeport, we arrived at the boat around nine-fifteen on a Friday night. Most of our fellow passengers were already on board, with their equipment setup. Once we got settled ourselves, we watched dive masters fill rows of air tanks draped with neoprene and chrome and divers check their equipment—hose connections, air pressure, and buoyancy jackets (known as BCs, or buoyancy compensators)—in preparation for the first dive, which was scheduled for no later than seven the next morning at the West Bank. We signed several long waiver forms and started unpacking our gear.

As we crowded into the air-conditioned galley to be briefed for our trip, we got the answer to our first question, "M. V." stands for "Motor Vessel" and the answer to our second question, "No, it wasn't a shark" (this one answered by our one-legged captain, Randy). The crew of the Fling consisted of two captains, Randy and Leo, and three volunteer dive masters, all fit-looking, no-nonsense men in their fifties. In addition to the cooks on board, the two dive shops that put this trip together each sent a representative. For nearly an hour, we were reminded of the basics of scuba safety and instructed in the unique aspects of open-sea diving from the Fling. Scuba diving is a low-risk activity as long as good judgment is exercised and safety guidelines are strictly adhered to. The briefing was a reassuring indication that our hosts would not let us get ourselves into trouble.

Afterward, I sat on the upper deck and watched the stars as the boat slowly maneuvered its way down the ship channel and past the last buoys. Once we were out on the open water, the huge engines were cranked up to full throttle, slamming the ship into the waves and drenching the decks with spray. The pitching and lurching made for uncomfortable sleeping in my forward bunk; after six hours of queasiness and restlessness, we arrived at the West Bank. It was dawn.

We saw a few oil rigs in the distance as the sky began to clear. We were behind schedule getting onto the mooring, the result of negotiations with some sport fishermen who wanted to make the buoy their own, so there was barely time to grab fruit and coffee before suiting up for the first dive. We had five dives scheduled that day and three the next, with a minimum two-and-a-half hour sit-out period between each dive. My dive buddy and I stood on the edge of the deck—one hand on our masks and the other on our regulators—while a dive master made a last-minute equipment check. (Jumping in with your air turned off, for example, is not that unusual.) We finally took that six-foot giant stride into the warm Gulf.

Once I was in the water, I immediately became thankful for two things: our last trip was canceled because of the five-foot swells and the line going down under the water that was tied off to the mooring line at forty feet below. Even in the relatively calm sea, the waves made it hard to descend normally—by letting air out of your BC, or simply breathing out—and I had to drag myself under the water. By the time I got to the ocean floor eighty feet below, I had used nearly 1,000 pounds of air—a third of a normal tank fill—a sure sign that I was not relaxed. Most people that wear a wet suit float, so many divers also wear weight belts to get negative buoyancy; they add or release air from their BC for fine-tuning. Scuba diving requires a great deal of technical attention, not only in preparation but also under the water. You must monitor air intake, compass bearing, the current, your depth, and the passage of time. Dive computers that calculate how long you can stay underwater and flash warnings if an attempt is made to surface too fast are now commonplace, but the whole experience can seem dauntingly task-loaded for the beginner, or even the moderately experienced—such as me—in unfamiliar circumstances.

It's all worth it, though—the feeling must be the closest to actually flying that exists on this earth. I

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