Gulf of Mexico
NOAA researchers board the R/V Manta in preparation for an overnight expedition to Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Ellie Cherryhomes/NOAA

TX - Routine Monitoring Sheds Light on Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Long-Term Conditions

NOAA scientists plunge over the deck of Research Vessel Manta and in pairs descend the clear, blue water of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Floating above the underwater salt domes that rise from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, the divers survey the conditions and perform critical monitoring of the reefs below.

This quarterly sampling trip adds valuable information to the decades-old datasets that shape our understanding of this marine oasis.

Roughly 100 miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary protects three separate coral areas: East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank, and Stetson Bank. These banks represent the few remaining healthy coral-dominated reefs in the greater Caribbean. These sites host a spectacular community of marine life unlike anywhere else in the world, including manta rays, whale sharks, spotted eagle rays, hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, and boulder-sized corals.

It takes a team of attentive and caring scientists to monitor these corals for signs of stress, disease, and pollution. The process begins on land, with the complex coordination of people, equipment, and the research vessel to ensure everyone and everything are prepared to conduct fieldwork offshore. Since 1989, scientists have made this voyage to monitor the health of these shallow-water coral reefs. Every detail of the trip is planned to maximize the time offshore. Aboard the boat, a floating laboratory is used to facilitate the research cruise and to operate water sampling instrumentation.

In pairs, the researchers replace stationary water quality instrumentation that is mounted on the seafloor. “When changes occur on the reef, the data provide us with information to understand and explain the conditions that may have affected the corals,” says sanctuary research specialist Jimmy MacMillan. Each bank has water quality instruments capable of monitoring hourly temperature, salinity, and turbidity. The quarterly water quality sampling provides researchers an in-depth understanding of the water chemistry just above the reef, at the midwater, and at the surface. This can provide insight regarding acute or long-term health problems of the reefs.

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