The Flower Garden Banks Coral Spawning | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

The Flower Garden Banks Coral Spawning | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD

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This time on Jonathan Bird’s Blue World,
exploring seamounts in the Gulf of Mexico! Hi I’m Jonathan Bird and welcome to my world! The Gulf of Mexico. To many people, it conjures images of oil
platforms or maybe even oil spills. But this magnificent body of water is so much
more than a rich deposit of oil and gas reserves. There is warm, clear water containing lush
coral reefs, murky plankton-filled water with giants feeding on the plankton, and virtually
everything in between. The Gulf of Mexico is an ocean basin surrounded
by the United States, Mexico and Cuba. Though connected to the Caribbean, it is somewhat
isolated, and experiences rather small tidal changes. 100 miles off the coast of Texas, there are
three seamounts, rising up from the depths. Two of them are capped by lush coral reefs. These are the Flower Garden Banks, protected
by the United States government since 1992 as a National Marine Sanctuary. I have been fortunate enough to receive an
invitation from the Women Divers Hall of Fame to join their expedition to the Flower Garden
Banks. The trip was planned during the week following
the full moon in the hopes of observing the coral spawn. I board the Fling, a dive boat based in Texas
that routinely visits the Flower Garden Banks. Captain Bland is at the helm as we set a course
for the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary! And while the Gulf is infamous for rough seas,
we got lucky today. The water is flat calm, and a trio of Bottlenosed
dolphins have joined us on the bow. Our first stop is at Stetson Bank, the northern-most
seamount in the sanctuary. With the mooring line tied, the ladders go
down and it’s time to suit up. This is the highest giant stride of any dive
boat I think I have ever been on. How far is that? Six feet. It’s only six feet? That’s it. That is more than six feet. Well, wait until the waves go down. It’s more than six feet. Alright. Woo! Next my camera is lowered on a rope. Sort of. As a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame,
my wife Christine is here. Cameraman Todd had to stay home because Christine
is my camerawoman! We descend 80 feet to the top of Stetson Bank. Stetson, like the Flower Garden Banks, is
a seamount—a pinnacle that rises up from deep water like an underwater mountain. The summit of that mountain is shallow enough
that we can get there with conventional scuba gear. Stetson is sedimentary rock. Erosion has made the layers of the rock easily
observable. Due to cool water temperatures, there is very
little coral at Stetson Bank, but the rocks are covered in sponges and algae. The marine life here takes advantage of what
they have: algae, sponges and cracks. A crack hides a sea urchin and an arrow crab. A well-camouflaged Scorpionfish hides in plain
sight on an algae-tufted rock. A cluster of purple tube sponge is a home
for damselfish. But sponge is also a meal for a hungry French
angelfish. And, one of the hardest fish to find–a Frogfish
looks like a sponge to avoid detection. It’s in a weird position and hard to film,
but this rare beauty deserves some screen time! The bank also attracts big schools of fish
looking for food, and a place to hide at night. At this depth, we can’t stay very long. Soon it’s time to head back to the boat. We ascend up the mooring line, do a safety
stop, and then make our way to the ladder at the stern of the boat. Woo! As soon as everyone is out of the water, the
crew begins filling tanks, and preparing for departure to the Flower Garden Banks. Anchors are destructive to the reef, so we
are tying the boat to a permanently attached mooring line. Down on the reef, the mooring line is attached
to a strong steel ring embedded in the reef. There are several mooring sites on the bank
and no anchors are allowed. Before the dive, we get a briefing from Captain
Bland. Just pull hand over hand like you have been
doing… Then it’s time to suit up and check out
the coral! The water here is super clear and blue and
I can see the reef below as soon as I hit the water, even though its 80 feet down! Christine and I fire up our cameras and try
to familiarize ourselves with the topography. We will be back down here after dark looking
for the coral spawning. The Flower Garden Banks look much different
than Stetson Bank. In the winter, the water here is only 4°
Fahrenheit warmer than Stetson, but that’s enough to allow dense coral growth. In fact, the bank is jam-packed with coral
in density that is rarely seen elsewhere. The top of this seamount isn’t very big,
so the coral competes for space. Star corals and brain corals dominate the
landscape. Large barrel sponges complete the topography
picture. There are coral overhangs and crevasses. They create habitats for the type of marine
life that thrives on Caribbean reefs. A moray eel watches me with caution. Christmas tree worms burrow into the coral
and extend their delicate gills into the water. Above the reef, schools of silvery baitfish
eat plankton. At night they will hide in the reef, where
they will be stalked by Lionfish—beautiful but deadly invasive species that originated
in the Indo-Pacific. With no natural predators in the Gulf of Mexico
and Caribbean, Lionfish populations are skyrocketing. Parrotfish are a common sight on all corals
reefs. They eat the algae that lives on and in coral. They have hard teeth that can take the abuse
of biting at limestone all day. Once the parrotfish gets used to me, I can
get pretty close for some nice shots. But when I look up, I have attracted the attention
of a Barracuda…and it’s circling! This is definitely not normal Barracuda behavior. While this fish does look mean, looks can
be deceiving. The fact is that they’re almost never aggressive
to divers. So what’s going on? It doesn’t take long to figure out that
I have stumbled into the barracuda’s cleaning station. As soon as I get out of the way, the barracuda
swims up, does its best to hold still, and soon receives the attention of a cleaner fish
in the form of a juvenile Spanish Hogfish. The Hogfish is searching for parasites on
the barracuda to eat. If it can find any, the Hogfish gets fed and
the barracuda gets rid of an annoying hitch-hiker. It’s good for everyone. So the barracuda just keeps orbiting around
the Hogfish’s lair. All too soon, once again its time to make
our way back to the world above. Christine and I do a safety stop just below
the boat. While we are hanging on the mooring line,
a manta ray swims by! You can’t beat that for safety stop entertainment! Woo, that was fantastic! Such a great dive with nice clear water…I
love it! Later in the day, as the sun sets, it’s
getting to be time for the coral spawn. We can only hope that tonight is the night. It only happens a few nights per year. When we start seeing the eggs at the surface,
we know we hit the jackpot. It’s time to go!! Our group of divers rush to hit the water. As I descend into the dark ocean, it looks
more like outer space. I’m surrounded by constellations of coral
spawn. I’m getting worried that we missed the main
event. Down on the reef, I frantically search for
spawning coral. But it doesn’t take long to find a coral
colony that hasn’t spawned yet. Each polyp of this brain coral is incubating
a single gamete bundle. It looks like an egg, but brain corals are
hermaphrodites. Each bundle contains an egg and sperm together. As the bundles are released and float away,
they later separate into eggs and sperm, so they can cross-fertilized in the water column. I’m conflicted as I patiently wait for a
coral colony to spawn. I have no way of knowing what I’m missing
somewhere else on the reef while I focus all my attention here. But this is what I came to see! The miracle of life. The night may be special to the coral, but
the parrotfish is trying to get some well-deserved rest. I’m pretty sure the honeycomb cowfish is
annoyed by my video lights and wants me to leave. The barracuda has lost interest in getting
cleaned and hunkered down for the night. Our timing was good. The coral spawn is about over by the time
we need to leave. I’m thrilled to have been a part of the
expedition to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The sponge-covered topography of Stetson Bank
with its diverse inhabitants is an underwater photographer’s paradise. And the reef-covered shallows of the Flower
Garden Banks are more densely-packed than many Caribbean reefs. Seeing the coral spawn was icing on the cake. The Gulf of Mexico is definitely much more
than meets the eye.

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