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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 drifted in a muted blue world, hanging nearly motionless in a water column that was inches away from fantastic coral formations—alien Tolkien landscapes intricate as jewelry—watching tiny butterfly fish, trunkfish, drum, and puffer go about their business without looking at me. Schools of bar jack and yellowtail snapper flashed in and out of my vision in a silvery whirl while two sharp-teethed Great Barracuda stood guard and several more hovered above. Everywhere I looked, brightly colored parrot fish, angelfish, and wrasse swarmed over the reef, darting at the coral to suck up sustenance. It was lunchtime. Mountainous star coral and greenish-white domes of brain coral dominated this magical underwater panorama. Strangely, at the Flower Garden Banks there are no large, shallow-water branching corals, sea fans, nor sea whips, all of which occur at similar depths on other Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean coral reefs.
Underwater conditions were good: depth visibility was approximately one hundred feet, the water temperature was in the high seventies (maybe a degree or so cooler than the Caribbean average), and the current was moderate. My buddy and I roamed slowly across the reef, respecting the new dive mantra—take only photos, leave only bubbles. We ventured no farther than one hundred yards from the mooring line, checking compass bearings often and keeping at least one other buddy pair in sight. After just over half an hour, I had less than 1,000 pounds of air in my tank, which meant that it was time to begin the slow ascent to fifteen feet for the mandatory five-minute safety stop. A safety stop allows the body time to breathe out the extra nitrogen that the pressure has forced into the blood and tissue. If you come up too fast, the gas can bubble out into a joint or the brain, necessitating a helicopter ride to the nearest hyperbaric chamber.
After we got back on the ship and had a bite to eat (the galley counter was full of heaping plates of French toast and bacon and an urn was full of fresh coffee), most everybody on board headed back to the bunks for some serious napping. It felt like I had been asleep only for a few minutes before a dive master banged on the cabin door (really two hours later) shouting, "Any diver wanting to dive, on the deck now."
So the first day went like this: We dove for 30 to 45 minutes or so, ate, napped, and then dove again two-and-half hours later. After another dive at the West Bank, Captain Leo moved the boat about twelve miles to the East Bank, where the coral and the fish are even more impressive. We saw manta ray and morays and two big turtles (one was obviously a native because he had a transmitter on his back). Later we learned that this particular turtle had been onboard the Fling several times as part of a study on the loggerhead population.
We descended into the deep for the fifth and last time that night at nine-thirty. A night dive in progress is a curious sight—something between a small construction site and an episode of The X-Files—an effect that was heightened on this occasion by the stove lights placed on the mooring line to ensure that we didn't get lost. Lights and black shapes crisscrossed in the dark water as divers poked into crevices looking for the creatures that only come out at night. My flashlight picked out porcupine fish, balloonfish, squirrelfish, and sea urchins along with the ever-present barracuda. We had been warned not to rest our beams too long on small fish, because the dogfish have learned to follow divers at night for easy hunting. We made it back on the boat and, only after a brief stop for dessert, headed for our bunks. I awoke for just a second around three in the morning as one of the captains started the engines for the trip over to the next day's dive destination, the Stetson Bank.
Once buoy negotiations were resolved, we went down under and cruised the fantastic moonscapes of the Stetson Bank—the West Texas of dive sites. A brief swim over sand covered with sparse green seaweed at around eighty feet brought us to the coral pinnacles and rocky canyons that line a sloping drop to deeper waters. We saw horse-eye jacks and blue tang and a huge pair of French angelfish. On our second dive I was so struck with wonder that I came close to breaking the strict one hundred feet limit that one of the dive masters had imposed. My buddy and I had to tear ourselves away with slightly more than 750 pounds of air in our tanks—this is not a recommended move.
As beautiful as it was at the West Bank, it got better. Our final stop was at oil rig HI 380, which was on the way back to shore. When we got there, several of us eagerly followed the line down into the artificial reef formed by the vast metal structure. For thirty enchanted minutes, we floated inside the open shaft made by the rig supports while surrounded by an incredible concentration of marine life. Big jacks—all silvery muscle—blazed by, and glistening schools of chub and chromis flocked around the coral-encrusted V-shaped joins in the rig.
Back in Freeport, the rain poured while we loaded up our vehicles for the trip home. So what if I didn't get to see a ray or a shark on this trip, this last dive was a great ending to a wonderful weekend of diving, right here in Texas.