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July 1-4, 2008
aboard the M/V Fling

The International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) is held every four years.  This year over 3000 participants from 90 countries were in attendance in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) was well represented by sanctuary staff and researchers who provided a variety of presentations and posters. 

The FGBNMS was one of the sites that hosted field trips for ICRS participants.  On July 1-4, 2008 we were thrilled to be able to share the beauty of the Flower Garden Banks NMS with national and international coral reef scientists.


Group shot of the field trip participants standing on the top deck of the boat as it heads into port.
ICRS Field Trip participants. Back row, L to R: David Burdick, Sarah Davies, G.P. Schmahl, Jen Dupont, Jeremy Marshall, Karen Neely, Lawrence McCook, Jamie Nobles (DM), Dennis Hubbard, John Prentice (DM), Brian Von Herzen, Amy Borgen. Front Row, L to R: Deana Erdner, Dan Castellanos, Marissa Nuttall, Emma Hickerson, Karla Hubbard-Parsons. Photo: Capt. Bland/Gulf Diving

The trip was led by Sanctuary Superintendent G.P. Schmahl and Research Coordinator Emma Hickerson.  Field Trip participants were:

ICRS Scholars:

  • Karen Neely
  • Jen Dupont, University of South Florida
  • Sarah Davies, University of Calgary

ICRS Participants:

  • Karla Hubbard, Oberlin College
  • Dennis Hubbard, Oberlin College
  • David Burdick, Guam Coastal Management Program
  • Laurence McCook, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
  • Brian Von Herzen, Climate Foundation

FGBNMS Researchers:

  • Dan Castellanos, Wildlife Conservation Society – manta ray and whale shark acoustic tagging, change-out of acoustic receivers
  • Deana Erdner, University of Texas – collection of algae for ciguatoxin analysis
  • Jeremy Marshall, PBS&J – change-out of water quality instrumentation
  • Amy Borgen, PBS&J – change-out of water quality instrumentation
  • Marissa Nuttall, FGBNMS - manta ray and whale shark acoustic tagging, change-out of acoustic receivers

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East and West Bank Dives

Water temperature was variable throughout the water column, ranging from 77° F on bottom to 86° F on top!  A fresh water layer was definitely visible at the surface and salinity measurements confirmed this with 29.1 PPT readings at the surface, 31.9 PPT at 10 meters, and 35.1 at 25 meters.  Visibility was about 80 feet. 

Looking up at the underside of a manta ray as it swims overhead.
This manta, known as M6 in our manta catalog, was seen at West Flower Garden Bank. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

The first dive of the trip started out superbly, with most divers seeing manta rays.  This included at least two different individuals that were not previously reported in our manta catalog! 

Other observations included ocean triggerfish nesting in the sand patches, several large black grouper, and a loggerhead sea turtle. 

During a night dive, Sarah Davies and several others were lucky enough to witness brittle stars spawning.  This is the first reporting of this species of brittle star spawning at the Flower Garden Banks. 

A bristly brittle star lying across a coral head while releasing a smoky substance from it's central disc.
Male brittle star (Ophiocoma wendtii) spawning. Photo: Sarah Davies

This trip also provided an opportunity to document a disease event that has been occurring with many of the sanctuary's giant barrel sponges, Xestospongia muta, since last year. Large areas of their tissue are either completely gone, or large areas of necrosis are evident that will eventually disintegrate. The line of demarcation between healthy and dying tissue was very clear, and the body of the sponge appeared to be affected. 

Nine lobes of a purplish barrel sponge colony.  The center of the colony is yellow from disease which affects some or all of 5 lobes.
A diseased barrel sponge showing the affected tissue priior to disintegration. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

We will continue to watch this event and document cases, but are interested to hear from anyone who knows anything about it, what the cause is, etc. If you have information, please contact the sanctuary research coordinator.

Three reddish lobes of a barrel sponge suspended over an area where tissue has died off.  The underside of the lobes is white where the tissue has died.
A barrel sponge after loss of disease-affected tissue (this is a different colony than the photo above). Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

On a positive note, it appears that the Madracis field on the eastern flank of East Flower Garden Bank appears to have recovered from the destruction caused by Hurricane Rita in 2005.  We’ll see how this holds up during the 2008 hurricane season

We made several algae collections for Deana who is looking for ciguatoxin, which she found! This is not altogether a good thing.  Earlier this year the FDA put out a seafood advisory in relation to ciguatoxin found in samples from fish at the FGBNMS, so this confirms (again) that the toxic algae is in fact on the reef.

Several coral colonies with Christmas tree worms protruding from the surface.  The Christmas tree shapes are the exposed gills of the worms that have burrowed into the corals.
Corals and Christmas tree worms on the reef at night. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

We had an exciting exit from our last dive at East Flower Garden Bank when a squall blew through with 6-7’ seas, and winds gusting to 38 knots. But, everyone held their own and negotiated the ladders safely.

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Stetson Bank Dives

Stetson Bank was as enjoyable as ever. We were pleased to see newly recruited spiny lobster at Stetson Bank – maybe around a year old. They were hanging out on Sierra Madracis along with regulars such as blackbar soldierfish and spotted drum. There were also plenty of Diadema around – both the black- and white-spined varieties. 

Several reef fishes hovering over a Madracis coral formation at Stetson Bank.A long-spined sea urching with both black and white spines.
Left: Blackbar soldierfish (Myripristis jacobus), spotted drum (Equetus punctatus), reef butterflyfish (Chaetodon sedentarius) and creolefish (Paranthias furcifer) on Sierra Madracis. Right: Spiny sea urchin, Diadema antillarum. Photos: Hickerson/FGBNMS

There were also quite a few slipper lobsters wandering about the reef and tucked away in crevices. 

A slipper lobster next to a black sea urchin and several small red fish.
A slipper lobster, flamefish (Apogon maculates) and a spiny sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) on ten-ray star coral (Madracis decactis). Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

A school of lookdowns swirled by us, which is not a common sight.

A school of silvery fish in the open water.  The front of their bodies is flattened making them appear to be looking down, hence the name Lookdown.
Lookdowns (Selene vomer). Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

As usual there was quite a lot of fishing line on Stetson – many of the tube sponges had been entangled.

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Parting Shot

Finally, this is just an amusing shot Emma wanted to share with everyone.  She was taking a shot of G.P. who was shooting the manta at West Flower Garden Bank, when this very cheeky barracuda shot into the frame and parked itself.  

A close look at the front half of a silvery barracuda in the foreground while a diver photographs a manta ray in silhouette in the background.
A barracuda refuses to be upstaged by a manta at the Flower Garden Banks NMS. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

Download the ICRS Field Trip Report (700kb pdf)

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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.
National Marine Sanctuary logo - a stylized whale tail above waves