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August 21-24, 2008
Inaugural trip aboard the R/V Manta

Inaugural R/V Manta Trip

Each year the coral spawning event is greatly anticipated by both researchers and recreational divers. This year the annual research cruise was also notable as the inaugural mission for the R/V Manta, the sanctuary's brand new, custom-designed research vessel. Finally, a chance to put her through her paces and find out if everything operated as well as expected.


The Flower Garden Banks NMS research team and crew loaded up and headed out from the dock at Texas A&M University Galveston Small Boat Basin at around noon on August 21st, 2008, on this inaugural mission. Particpating in the expedition were: 

Captain Chuck standing on the top deck of the boat looking over the edge at the water below.
Captain Chuck maneuvers the R/V Manta into postiion from the topside starboard control station.
Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

*Chuck Currie, Captain
*Deborah Brock, Captain
*Wes Haizlip, Deckhand
*LTJG Tracy Hamburger, Operations Officer
*G.P. Schmahl, Sanctuary Superintendent
*Emma Hickerson, Research Coordinator
*Jenn DeBose, Research Specilist
*Marissa Nuttall, Research Assistant
*Courtney Horne, TAMUG Graduate Student

In addition to the R/V Manta, the M/V Spree was out at EFGB with a boatload of recreational divers anxious to witness the coral spawning event.

The M/V Fling was also on site with a crew from Galatee Film on board.  University of Calgary Researchers Peter Vize and Sarah Davies were out with their team supporting the film crew and conducting their own coral spawning and recruitment activities.

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Sea Conditions

Sea conditions were not so great on the transit out--around 4 foot swells running very close together.  The research team says it wasn’t the most comfortable ride out, but they were tied up at West Flower Garden Bank (WFGB) by around 5 p.m.  Imagine that--getting to the sanctuary in about 5 hours! 

Strong currents at WFGB were not conducive to diving so the Manta headed over to East Flower Garden Bank (EFGB). Even though these two banks are only 12 miles apart, the conditions were much better at EFGB.  Emma suspects that the currents that have been fairly prevalent at WFGB are caused by an eddy current that broke off the main loop current back in April this year.

Map of the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. with arrows showing the paths of various water currents that occur in the Gulf.
The Gulf Loop Current often spins off small eddies that sometimes travel over the sanctuary. Image Credit: FGBNMS

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Cruise Activities

Courtney, who is studying the dynamics of phytoplankton and coral spawning, collected water samples.  We also took temperature and salinity measurements, making full use of the moon pool located between the dive benches on the back deck of the R/V Manta.

Two researchers hold a water sampling instrument over a white bucket after drawing it up through a small opening in the deck of a boat.
Wes and Courtney use the moon pool for water sample collections during the mass coral spawning event. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS


Two researchers lowering a black cable through an opening in the deck of the boat.  The cable is attached to a temperature and salinity probe.
Marissa and Courtney deploy the YSI temperature/salinity probe through the moon pool to collect profiles from the surface down to 25 meters. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

Spawning was extremely sparse on the 6th and 7th night after the full moon. This caused Emma a few moments of concern since Galatee had mobilized their entire crew from France and Australia at a very large expense based on our predictions!  Galatee Films was collecting footage for a feature film called OCEANS, which is scheduled to be released in 2009.

Two flood lights on tripod stands perched on the sand flat in the middle of the coral reef.
Galatee Films had an elaborate set on the bottom, complete with lights and screens. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

On what we predicted as the major spawning night, 8 nights after the full moon, the corals did what we had hoped for, and spawned quite spectacularly.  Jenn also documented quite a large number of squid (Loligo roperi) on the reef this night. We didn’t however, see any Christmas tree worms or brittle stars spawning.  Ruby brittle stars were reported on the 9th night by the M/V Fling.  They also reported a hammerhead shark, a silky shark, and a manta ray. 

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2008 Spawning Observations

The mass coral spawning event was predicted to occur 7 to 10 days after the August full moon, which fell at 2116 UTC on August 16, 2008. Thus, the first night after the full moon was August 16, according to our prediction.

Water temperature at observation depth was 27.4-28.2°C, which is about 2°C cooler than 2007 readings. No freshwater was evident in the salinity profiling.

August 21, 2008 (6th night after the full moon)
2223 Montastraea cavernosa 1 male colony
2252 Montastraea cavernosa 1 female colony

August 22, 2008 (7th night after the full moon)
2100 Montastraea cavernosa 1 male colony
2130-2200 Orbicella (Montastraea) franksi 1+ colony

Small, BB-like spheres floating up from a coral head during spawning.  These bundles contain egg and sperm.
Gamete release by star coral (Montastraea franksi) during mass coral spawning. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

August 23, 2008 (8th night after the full moon)
2007-2133 Montastraea cavernosa 32 male colonies
2035-2133 Montastraea cavernosa 6 female colonies
2111-2200 Pseudodiploria strigosa 35 colonies
2117-2220 Orbicella (Montastraea) franksi 58 colonies
2215 Orbicella (Montastraea) faveolata 1 colony

A brain coral with many little white spheres nestled in its grooves, and several floating free above the coral.  These white spheres are egg and sperm bundles.
Gamete bundles being released by brain coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa) during mass coral spawning. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS


Small white spheres (egg/sperm bundles) float up from a star coral colony during spawning.
Star coral (Orbicella (Montastraea) faveolata) releases gamete bundles during mass coral spawning. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

August 24, 2008 (9th night after the full moon)
2215-2300 Orbicella (Montastraea) franksi 10 colonies

Other species:
Ophioderma rubicundum male brittlestars

Three serpentine arms of a ruby brittlestar peeking out from under a coral ledge, grabbing gamete bundles as the release from the coral.
Ruby brittlestar (Ophioderma rubicundum) collects gamete bundles from star coral (Orbicella (Montastraea) franksi) to feed on during the mass spawning. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

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Other Observations

Spiny sea urchins are making a slow recovery at the Flower Garden Banks after the mass die off event in the early 1980's. Both the white- and black-spined urchins are prevalent at the sanctuary.

Three long-spined sea urchins on top of the reef at night.
Spiny sea urhcins (Diadema antillarum) at night. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

Decorator crabs are often out and about on the reef after dark.

Brown crab with a large piece of yellow-brown sponge on its back crawling along between coral heads at night.
This decorator crab is sporting a large piece of sponge (Agelas clathrodes). Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

Large spiny lobsters seem to be less plentiful at East and West Flower Garden Banks these days.

Front half of spiny lobster crawling out from under a rocky ledge.
It was great to see this large speiny lobster (Panulirus argus). Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

Juvenile grouper are always a welcome sight.

Reddish fish with dark spots and yellow pecroal fins resting under a coral ledge just above some sand and rubble.
A beautiful juvenile yellowfin grouper (Mycteroperca venenosa). Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

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R/V Manta Operations

Overall, the inaugural operations from the R/V Manta on site were very satisfactory.  We were well pleased with the layout of the back deck, particularly the features that were specially designed for SCUBA operations such as the dive benches, camera tables, wetsuit hang racks, jump gates, dive platforms, and ladder design.  We’ll have to tweak the ladders a bit to incorporate a tie back system so that the ladders don’t swing in the swells.  We were also fairly pleased with the operation of the NITROX system.   The interior layout was comfortable, with plenty of room for equipment, bench space, food preparation, and mealtimes. 

The Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) launches, recoveries, and mooring tie ups went quite smoothly.  We put the RHIB through its paces when Tracy and Emma did a quick run from East to West Bank, following the R/V Manta at a fair clip.

Two people seated in a small rigid hull inflatable boat on the water.
Tracy and Emma head out on their 12 mile transit from East to West Flower Garden Bank in the 15 foot RHIB. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

Download a copy of the 2008 Coral Spawning Cruise Report (812kb pdf)

For general information about the annual mass coral spawning event, please visit our Coral Spawning page.

For summaries and reports from other spawning seasons, please use the links below.

2010 Coral Spawning

2009 Coral Spawning

2007 Coral Spawning

2006 Coral Spawning

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weather report observations cool stuff get wet

Orange, branching gorgonian (soft coral) anchored in a bed of sponges and other sea life.
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