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Visiting Your Sanctuary

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REEF ETIQUETTE

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is a national treasure and we all have a responsibility to protect it so that current and future generations can continue to enjoy its natural bounty.

Here are some tips to help you do your part to protect the sanctuary during your visits and to help maintain harmony among visitors. No buts about it, the health of the sanctuary depends on everyone to behave responsibly!

DIVING

Take only pictures; leave only bubbles.

"But, it's just one conch!," you exclaim. Each year, 2,500-3,000 divers visit the reef. If each diver took just one conch it would quickly wipe out the entire population of conch in the sanctuary.

Queen conch sitting on a sand patch

"But, the shell I took was empty!" Many shells appear to be empty when they are actually harboring a startled animal deep inside. Even if the shell is truly empty, it won't be for long. There are always reef residents such as hermit crabs, barnacles, young corals and sponges that need a place to crawl into or attach themselves so that they are protected from predators or the sweeping force of the currents while they grow.

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Be aware of your surroundings.

"But, that was a one-in-a-million photo opportunity!" While you are 'taking only pictures' be sure that's really ALL you are doing. It's easy to get caught up in the moment and not realize that you are actually laying across a coral head as you wait for that elusive little blenny to reappear so you can take a picture. Coral tissue is delicate and easily damaged by touching, poking, standing on, laying across..... well, you get the picture.

"But, I didn't see that diver behind me!" When you are trying to be safe and stick close to your buddy, make sure you're not too close. It's easy not to realize how close your buddy (or another diver) is to you. If you decide to turn, you can easily end up kicking someone's dive mask off their face, endangering not only that individual but anyone who attempts to assist. Look around you frequently--not just at the reef, but at the other divers in your vicinity.

Sand channel between sections of reef.

"But, I was on a sand patch - not a coral head"! Settling down on a sand patch may be preferable to settling down on a coral head, but it can still have negative impacts. Stirring up the sand impairs the local visibility for other divers and may temporarily block animal burrows. Please remember that animals live in the sandy area too.

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Keep your hands to yourself.

"But, the manta ray WANTED me to rub its back!" Over the years, divers at the Flower Garden Banks have reported that the manta rays seem to enjoy having their dorsal side (back or top side) rubbed. As all junkfood-junkies know, however, just because we LIKE something, doesn't mean it's HEALTHY for us! It's also against sanctuary regulations.

Fish, including manta rays, have a protective slime coating that shields against bacteria. Anecdotal reports from areas with high rates of human interaction with manta rays say that those manta rays exhibit higher rates of lesions and sores on their dorsal sides. The manta rays in the sanctuary have not, so far, been subject to abnormal rates of lesions and we'd like to keep it that way.

Looking down at the back of a manta ray swimming over a sand flat

"But, the current was really rippin' and I had to hang onto SOMETHING!" Currents can be strong in the sanctuary. That's why we recommend that divers have excellent buoyancy control and some saltwater diving experience before they attempt this dive. We certainly don't want anyone to jeopardize their safety. Listen carefully to the dive master's report about conditions before you jump. Stick close to the mooring line if the current is strong and grab hold of the line if you must grab onto something. If you're away from the mooring line and find that you must put your hand down to steady yourself, try to do so on dead coral or bare rock.

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Be courteous of the animals' home - you are the visitor in their world.

"But, I don't have a picture of a turtle and he was just laying there under the ledge!" Would you want a group of turtles coming through your bedroom at night, popping bright flashes in your face as they took your picture? Of course not! At the very least, you would wake up very grumpy and possibly even come up swinging.

For a turtle, being startled can cause increased respiratory rates, which means they have to swim to the surface sooner than they would otherwise. For quick swimming predators such as sharks and barracudas, being startled by a bright flash in the dark can cause the animal to race toward the light, endangering the photographer.

In addition, turtles and other animals require massive amounts of energy to survive. They cannot hop in the car and drive a couple of blocks away for a burger and fries. They must use their energy reserves to chase down dinner, avoid predators and reproduce. If they don't get adequate sleep, their reserves are depleted and their long-term survival is compromised.

Sea turtle resting on the bottom at Stetson Bank.  A diver is silhouetted above the reef in the background.

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BOATING

Use the mooring buoys, rather than dropping your anchor.

"But, there wasn't a mooring buoy in the part of the sanctuary I wanted to visit!" Damage to the corals from anchors was one of the primary reasons the Flower Garden Banks were finally designated as a National Marine Sanctuary. If just touching or standing on a coral damages the tissue, imagine what a 50-pound anchor will do to it!

Stony corals, like those on the reef cap in the sanctuary, grow extremely slowly--about one inch every two or three years. An anchor can destroy decades of hard-won growth. This issue is so serious that the International Maritime Organization granted Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary the first ever International No-Anchoring Area designation for a coral reef habitat. Both international and sanctuary regulations prohibit anchoring inside sanctuary boundaries.

Looking past the bow of a boat to a mooring buoy on the water's surface.  A line mooring line leads from the boat to the buoy.

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Sea spout stretching from a dark cloud down to the sea surface and churning up a section of water.  Looks like a very narrow tornado.
   
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