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Coral Connections in the Gulf

August 21-September 2, 2011
aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster




This 14-day mission was designed to gather key baseline data on the fish populations and benthic (or seafloor) communities of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.  The sanctuary provides habitat for many important commercial and recreational fish species, as well as ecologically important sea floor habitats, like coral reefs.

Gathering this information is critical to understanding the ecology of the sanctuary and managing the marine resources contained within it. Scientists will use a combination of several data collection methods to paint a better picture of the condition of the sanctuary’s ecosystems. These include:

  • Scuba diving: Diving takes the goggles underwater and places trained scientists into a variety of marine systems to identify, count, collect, measure and observe all aspects of the study area.
  • Ship-based seafloor mapping: To map the seafloor, sonar sensors mounted on the bottom of the research vessel are used collect information about the depth and physical properties of the seafloor.  These two pieces of information are then analyzed by scientists and used to pinpoint locations and habitats they would like to explore in more detail.
  • Acoustic fish sampling: Sounds emitted from scientific “fish finders” are yet another way to peer below the surface. Based on the return strength of the sound waves, scientists can estimate everything from fish density, size distributions, and day-night abundance and distribution differences.

Twenty-four hour data collection operations take place aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, a 187-foot oceanographic research vessel equipped with all the tools needed for a successful mission.

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
NOAA Ship Nancy Foster. Photo: NOAA

See where the Nancy Foster is right now using NOAA's Ship Tracker website.

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Study Area

Located about 115 miles directly south of the Texas/Louisiana border, East and West Flower Garden Banks are actually salt domes rising above the sea floor.  This location and depth are highly suitable for reef-building corals, offering a hard surface for attachment, clear sunlit water, warm water temperatures (between 68 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit) and a steady food supply.

Atlas style map of sanctuary location in the Gulf of Mexico
Expedition research will focus on areas from 110 to 150 feet deep at East and West Flower Garden Banks

Shallower portions of the sanctuary are dominated by large, boulder-shaped coral such as brain coral and mountainous star corals. These habitats are shallow enough to allow scientists to visually inspect the seafloor and biological communities using scuba techniques.

However, much of the sanctuary is deeper than standard diving depths.  Different habitats occur at these depths than what is seen in the shallow areas.  Ancient reefs occur at depths around 300 feet and reefs made of coralline algae also provide structure for benthic communities. 

This expedition will focus on fish and benthic communities in the deeper portions of the coral cap, at depths ranging from 110 to 150 feet.

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Expedition Partners

This expedition is part of a large, collaborative, 3-year effort led by the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment’s (CCMA) Biogeography Branch. It compliments an earlier mission focused on deep-water fish and benthic habitat observations using sonar and a remotely operated vehicle, as well as several shallow-water diving missions. Project and expedition partners include:

  • Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
  • NCCOS Center for Coast Fisheries and Habitat Research
  • NCCOS Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Bimolecular Research
  • Coral Reef Conservation Program
  • Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology
  • NOAA Undersea Research Center/University of North Carolina at Wilmington
  • Texas A&M University at Galveston

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If you would like to ask the scientists about their expedition activities, please email us at They won't be able to answer all of your questions, but will try to address several in their daily logs.

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