Flower Gardens

                     March 24/25, 2012(Sat/Sun):

I began my normal routine of obsessing over the weather forecast leading up to this trip around March 20th. NOAA was forecasting 2'-3' seas, winds <10mph, and air temp's in the mid 80's for the weekend of the trip. "Too good to be true" was my thought at the time. Everyone knows that the weather man throws darts at a dart board with potential forecasts on it blindfolded to determine his forecast, or so it would normally seem. Still, I kept my fingers crossed.

Friday the 23rd arrives (departure day) and I load the car up, trying not to forget anything. Me and my soon to be dive buddy Nikolas Foster make the trek in short order and arrive about an hour and a half early. We eat nearby, then drive to the dock where the MV Fling is moored. We unload our gear and begin introducing ourselves to the other divers also waiting to board. Conversation is difficult due to the innumerable number of mosquitos seeking a free meal, but we all make due. There is a small group of only 16 divers this trip, which normally runs closer to 30 or so, giving us room to spare. At 8pm, a couple of crewmen (JT and Mark) come down the dock and give us the lowdown on boarding procedures and have everyone sign their release papers. We board the vessel and are soon underway.

As we begin the transit down the channel toward the gulf, we all gather for a trip briefing, introductions of crew, abandon ship drill, and other pertinent information related to the trip. Satellite TV, cold A/C and plenty of food are the order of the evening. We will travel all night and begin our first dive on the West Bank's buoy 4 around 7am in water that is a balmy 69 degrees. Everyone turns in fairly early to rest up for the dive marathon ahead.

Wake-ups come at 6am, and the smell of coffee, sausage, eggs and a whole montage of breakfast treats fills the air. After a great breakfast, we all head out to the aft deck and start prepping for the first of many dives. The surface is almost glass calm and there is negligible current flow. The crew lays down the law for depth limitations, entry and exit procedures and so forth, and draw us a diagram of the dive site on the aft bulkhead in dry erase marker. The pool is now open!

Bottom depth varies from 70' - 80' and visibility is about 80'. The bottom is nothing but coral with lots of crevasse's and holes, and touching down on bottom is not an option. Photo opportunities are endless and fish are everywhere! There are way too many to remember or list, but appearances are made by a couple of large hammerheads, a large dusky shark, a 10'+ tiger shark, some decent sized red snapper, black grouper, and a large school of bar jacks. Some of the smaller species include a variety of blennies and gobies, tangs, puffers, durgons, butterflyfish, french and queen angelfish, barracuda, many wrasses, damselfish, sergeant majors, a variety of chromis, parrotfish, filefish, trunkfish, triggerfish, and on and on.... We finish the first dive, ascend to our safety stop and execute it, then return to the boat. There is a minimum 2 1/2 hr surface interval imposed by the vessel, which is just enough time to off-gas most of your residual nitrogen (which is fairly high by the end of the dive), have your cylinder refilled, grab a bite to eat from the smorgasboard of food prepared during the dive, talk to other divers about what they saw during the dive, and get a little break before the call goes out that the "pool opens in 30 minutes". Dive 2 is done in the same fashion, but everyone gets to look for fish they missed the first go-around.

After dive 2, the mooring is cast off and the boat heads to the next location for dive 3, which in our case was "High Island" rig # HI376A. It is a short trek and before our 2 1/2 surface interval even ends, we are already there and moored. Workers on the platform look down at us just as intently as we are looking up at them. Water depth at the rig is in the 400' range, and the crew gives us our briefing of what to expect, what animals to avoid (bristle worms and fire coral), and tells us to hit the water. The diving is great and we see large schools of horse-eyed jacks, almaco jacks, bar jacks, blue runners, amberjacks, bermuda chubs, many barracuda, several species of parrotfish, tangs, surgeonfish, triggerfish, silky sharks, small tropicals and even a lionfish. Prior to the first dive, the crew offered everyone a small marker device to leave anywhere we spotted the invasive lionfish species. They are rudimentary markers, being only a large washer with bright flagging tied to it and terminating in a cork to float the flagging, but they get the job done. The lionfish that's spotted is marked by one of the divers and everyone gets a few good photo's and videos of the less than shy fish before moving on with their dive. Upon surfacing, the crew is notified of the lionfishes general whereabouts and a crewman heads below with a collection bag and short spearpole (they are issued special permits to do this). He resurfaces soon after with the invader, which is measured, then placed in a tupperware container and frozen to be shipped to a lab for tissue and stomach content analysis. With dive 3 now complete, we cast off and head toward East Bank buoy 5.

East Bank buoy 5 differs from our West Bank dives in that we are moored right over a decent sized sand patch surrounded by a variety of coral. The sand offers a new variety of species and makes this dive feel completely different than the ones done on West Bank. Depth is about 75'. There are many large barracuda and bermuda chubs hanging around the boat, as well as several large amberjack and groupers. We also see lizardfish, creole fish, filefish, and the usual tropicals. I even got to see a cleaning station in action when a large gray snapper hovers over an isolated chunk of brain coral and a couple of small fish come out and start picking him clean. Great stuff! With this dive complete, we return to the boat knowing that our next dive will be at this same location, but will not begin until after dark.

Again, more food and stories are shared onboard and everyone asks each other if they intend to do the night dive. All but a couple of divers give an immediate "yes". After our 2 1/2 hrs, we get a briefing for the night dive covering mostly what species we can expect to see that we didn't see on the day dives and how they will behave. The crew tells us that the black jacks like to follow you around in the shadows and pounce on any smaller fish that we illuminate with our lights, so we should use caution against directly illuminating fish we don't want to see eaten. We are also told not to shine our lights into each others eyes (basic info in the night diving course and common sense) and not to shine them into the eyes of larger fish, who apparently feel compelled to "go into the light". We hit the water and realize that there is now a light current, but not enough to really force anyone to work much harder at getting around. Once on bottom, we see many shrimp clinging to coral heads everywhere. I don't know if they simply came out because it was dark, or if we just didn't notice them in the daylight with so much more to look at. Maybe a little of both. Bioluminescence light a trail behind us as we move about, and the down line looks like a long green sparkler. Fantastic! As me and my dive buddy make our way back toward the down line to begin our ascent, I pan my light around looking for anything interesting. As I sweep left with my light, I spotlight a very large black jack who is close enough to touch. I almost soil myself. Thank goodness it was just a jack, but he scared the heck out of me none the less. I don't know how long he was glued to me before I spotted him, but he definitely stuck with us for the remainder of the dive and ascent. We board the vessel around 9pm and everyone turns in for the night, thoroughly exhausted from the full day's activities.

During the night, the Captain and crew move us to Stetson Bank and we moor at buoy 2. Wake-ups again come at 6am, and again there is a banquet awaiting us. Everyone gets their dose of coffee and calories, then head out to the aft deck to prep for the morning's diving. The sea is even calmer than the day before and the sunrise is spectacular. Shortly after the sun clears the horizon, everyone is suited up and taking a giant stride over the side. The bottom here is also quite unique in that there is no hard coral. Only scattered soft coral and sponges, leaving most residents exposed. The bottom is clay, but there are giant hills and mounds, leaving more vertical surfaces to explore. We are moored right over an abrupt ledge, so most divers take the opportunity to hit 130' before turning around and continuing their dive shallower. There are a few less fish here, but it is no less interesting. Spotted morays, lobster, several large grouper, puffers, squirrelfish, goatfish, rock hinds, a huge school of horse eyed jacks, amberjack, about 9 large hammerheads, a large sandbar shark, an octopus, several lionfish, and a very large atlantic stingray reveal themselves along with many other species. After the dive and during our safety stop, I look at my dive buddies arm (which is clinging to the down line) and it looks like he has stuck his arm in a fire ant bed and left it there. Small creepy-crawlies cover his arm to the elbow and are inch-worming their way upward at a rapid pace. I point at his arm as I laugh hard for a couple of seconds. That is, until I realize I too am clinging to the down line. A quick look at my own arm reveals that I am also being infested. We begin slapping at our arms, but the little guys cling tenaciously to our wet suits with hooked feet. Thoroughly creeped out, we finish the safety stop and return to the boat. I immediately ask a deck hand what the critters are (which apparently don't care that they are no longer in water), and he tells me they are brine shrimp. "Wow...Sea Monkeys" is all I can muster for a reply. Still creepy. Everyone else surfaces and we repeat the routine of eating and discussing things we saw on the dive.

The final dive is done at the same location, and fun is had by all. The final dive ends and everyone boards the boat. Gear is set out to dry and divers with laptop computers onboard begin reviewing their photos and videos. People exchange emails and share videos, then most head below decks to nap for the ride home. Overall, this trip was excellent to the tenth power. I cannot think of a single thing I could have changed to make it any better. Very light seas and winds, mild air and water temps, little to no current, great visibility and plenty of fish. Best of all, nobody had any issues like running out of air, having to be picked up by the boat, equipment malfunctions, or the like. The boat was extremely comfortable and the crew was top notch. This, in my opinion, is a bucket list dive trip that nobody should miss. I definitely plan to return, but maybe next time I will go later in the year to catch the whale sharks and manta's that the Flower Gardens is so famous for. If you have never been, you are definitely missing out on the best diving Texas has to offer. Hope to see you on my next Flower Garden trip!      
                                                                              By: Sean Allison
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