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Research Publications/Chronology


Prepared by Emma L. Hickerson, Marissa Nuttall,
John Embesi, and Ryan Eckert
January 2012


Cruises on board R/V MANTA were crewed by Blue Star Marine.

OCTOBER 8-9, 2010

FGBNMS research staff installed a new anchor and subsurface buoy line at Sonnier Bank and a new set of SPMDs (semi-permeable membrane devices) were attached to the new line. FGBNMS and TAMUG research divers searched for lionfish on the main peak at Sonnier but did not encounter any. Two rehabilitated Hawksbill Sea Turtles were released at an oil platform adjacent to Sonnier Bank by biologists from NMFS and the Kemah Aquarium.

For a detailed description of this cruise, please visit the 2010 NRDA Cruise #3a page.

Divers working with equipement on a submerged line
SPMDs are attached to a submerged buoy line at each of the banks. These were retrieved and new ones deployed at regular intervals. Photo: Schmahl/FGBNMS

OCTOBER 11-12, 2010

FGBNMS research team and TAMUG reciprocity divers completed random transect photography and fish counts at West Flower Garden Bank as part of the long-term monitoring effort.  SPMDs were changed out at East and West Flower Garden Banks, and Stetson Bank, as part of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort.  Temperatures at depth had decreased to 79F (26C), which should alleviate the bleaching event.

For a detailed description of this cruise, please visit the 2010 NRDA Cruise #3b page.

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DECEMBER 3-4, 2010

The FGBNMS research team headed back to Sonnier Bank to change out the SPMDs once more.  They also retrieved the temporary mooring (an anchor) and deployed a mooring anchor (cement block) for the SPMDs.  Water temperature was 73F (23C) and visibility was down to 25 feet.  Seas were 3-5 feet (1-1.5m) with winds at 15-18 knots (17-21 mph).  After the tasks were completed at Sonnier Bank, the team headed to East Flower Garden Bank where conditions were clearer–100 foot (34m) visibility, and the seas had dropped to 2-3 feet (.7-1.0m).  The team headed back to Galveston in front of a weather system.

For a detailed description of this cruise, please visit the 2010 NRDA Cruise #4 page.

JANUARY 3-8, 2011

Research Assistant Marissa Nuttall participated in a week-long cruise with Dr. Sylvia Earle (National Geographic Society) and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. The expedition took researchers to an area near the Deepwater Horizon well site called the Alabama Pinnacles, a series of natural reefs and banks along the continental shelf edge of Alabama that support a diverse mesophotic community.

Researchers hoped to explore these sites using a dual “Deepworker” submersible to investigate possible impacts from the oil spill. However, high winds and bumpy seas prevented launching the submersible at the target locations and forced the vessel into dock early.

Two small submarines exploring a reef
Two Deepworker submersibles were used during the Sustainable Seas expedition to the sanctuary in 2001.
Photo: Kip Evans

Although the submersible was unable to launch, two successful deployments of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA) Medusa lander were conducted.

Despite minimal data collection on this expedition, the cruise provided an opportunity for the sanctuary to make connections with researchers, nature writers and videographers.

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FEBRUARY 16-17, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks Research Team conducted a cruise to Sonnier Bank, East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank, and Stetson Bank to continue the NRDA monitoring effort and collect quarterly water quality data.

Sea states ranged from 1-2 feet (.3-.7m) to 3-4 feet (1-1.2m) and water temperature on the reef ranged from 62F (17C) at Sonnier Bank to 68F (20C) at West Flower Garden Bank. Two manta rays were encountered at East Flower Garden Bank, and Montastrea cavernosa was observed to be regaining color from the summer bleaching event. 

MARCH 29-30, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks research team and R/V MANTA crew successfully conducted the final retrieval cruise for the semi-permeable membrane devices (SPMDs) in response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  The team visited Stetson Bank, East and West Flower Garden Banks, and Sonnier Bank.  Rough seas were encountered, however underwater conditions were favorable--minimal currents and 60-100 foot (20-34m) visibility. Temperatures ranged from approximately 64F (18C) to 68F (20C).  A manta ray, and several hammerhead, tiger, and sandbar sharks were sighted. 

Diver transporting a lionfish in a clear capture net underwater.
Two lionfish captured at Sonnier Bank

Three invasive Pacific lionfish were captured at Sonnier Bank. They will be assessed for gut content, age, and genetics.  No lionfish have been sighted yet within sanctuary boundaries, although they are expected to reach the sanctuary this year.

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MAY 15-18, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks research team and partners from NCCOS, Harbor Branch, and UNCW (CIOERT), participated in a research cruise May 15–18 using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Surveys were conducted to evaluate fish populations and benthic cover in the deeper portions of the Sanctuary.

Despite losing a day and a half to rough seas, the team was able to conduct over 19 hours of ROV diving, capturing a total of 55 transects. The transects covered a variety of habitats at both East and West Flower Garden Banks, including the Algal Nodule Zone, Coralline Algae Reefs, Deep Coral Reefs, Soft Bottom, and a mud volcano!

Top of mud volcano cone with gas bubbles escaping.
This mud volcano was viewed by ROV during the
Secrets of the Gulf expedition in 2007.

The information gathered from these transects will feed into the establishment of fish population and benthic cover baselines to explore the possibility for a proposed research area. In addition, acoustic fish surveys were conducted to evaluate fish biomass using non-invasive methods.

Quarterly water samples were collected and water quality instrument maintenance completed at East Flower Garden, West Flower Garden and Stetson Banks.

JUNE 15-21, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks research team and Eric Hoffmayer from NOAA Fisheries conducted a research cruise to Ewing Bank to look for an expected aggregation of Whale Sharks. While the team did not encounter a large aggregation, they were able to find approximately six of the sharks with the help of  a spotter plane. Researchers were able to tag one shark with a satellite tag. The tagged Whale Shark was nicknamed "Bessie," and her location information was made available online.

Some of the satellite tags and the spotter plane overflights were funded by the The International Foundation for Animal Welfare. For more information about the tagging and tracking of Whale Sharks in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, visit

In addition to conducting Whale Shark research, the team collected video images from Ewing Bank using a drop camera. Little information is available about the habitat that occurs at Ewing Bank, so these videos will help add to our understanding of the structure of the bank.

Temperature, salinity and oxygen saturation were also measured around the bank in an attempt to detect if any discharge from the Mississippi River had expanded to the area. These casts showed that the waters currently around Ewing Bank were well mixed and oxygenated.

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JULY 5-8, 2011

The FGBNMS research team, including Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Texas A&M University-Galveston divers, completed a successful Stetson Bank Long-Term Monitoring cruise on board R/V MANTA.

Divers located and photographed 42 repetitive photostations , established 13 new stations, conducted 16 random transects and completed several belt transects. Lobster and urchin surveys were conducted during night dives. 

Long-spined urchin with white spines.
Urchin and lobster surveys are conducted on the
reef at night.
Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

Things got a little exciting at one point as a shark feeding frenzy erupted on the surface not far from the R/V MANTA as divers were preparing to enter the water!

We enjoyed flat surface conditions, although a little current and less than perfect visibility was encountered. This was the 22nd Stetson Bank long-term monitoring cruise.

JULY 11-15, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks research team, and Steve Gittings and Michelle Johnston from ONMS, along with Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and Texas A&M University-Galveston reciprocity divers, conducted long-term monitoring field work at East and West Flower Garden Banks in the record time of 3.5 days. 

Near perfect conditions, a strong field/dive team, and the high quality of the R/V MANTA crew and platform led to the success of the week. We located and photographed close to 150 photostations, collected video of the perimeter lines, accomplished 48 fish counts, completed 32 ten-meter (29ft) random photo surveys, and conducted four 100m x 2m (293ft x 5.8ft) night surveys for lobster and spiny sea urchins.

A graysby grouper under a ledge covered in orange cup coral colonies.
A graysby hiding under a ledge covered in small
colonies of orange cup coral

This project represents one of the longest running coral reef monitoring programs in the world. Highlights included the discovery of approximately 100 colonies of invasive orange cup coral (Tubastraea sp.) at West Flower Garden Bank, and sightings of at least four manta rays and a mobulid ray.

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JULY 18-22, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks NMS research team, including the crew of the R/V MANTA, and Texas A&M University Galveston reciprocity divers, successfully completed a week of maintenance and upgrading at the long-term monitoring site at East Flower Garden Bank. 

Tasks included drilling holes and installing eye bolts every 25 meters around the perimeter of the 100m x 100m (293ft x 293ft) study site, as well as along the crosshairs of the site.  This will allow for more repeatable surveys along these lines in the future.  Approximately 40 repetitive photostations were mapped into the site using the new eye bolts as reference.  

Eye bolt embedded in some rock on the reef. A tag with the letter 'E'  is attached to the top of the bolt.
A new eye bolt installed at East Bank

In addition to the bolt installation, a new mooring was drilled and installed close to the center of the study site.  This was the first opportunity to utilize the hydraulic quick disconnect capabilities of the R/V MANTA.  The visibility dropped from about 80 feet (27m) to 20 feet (7m) in a matter of minutes. 

New mooring on reef
New mooring bolt installed on the reef. The legs of the bolt extend about 2.5 feet into the rock.

Strong currents and poor visibility slowed the progress somewhat.  Water temperature was around 85F (29C).  Surface conditions ranged from 0-1 feet (0-.3m) to 3-4 feet (1-1.4m).

Trip highlights included a sighting of four Mardi Gras wrasse (an intermediate male and three females), a manta ray, a pair of curious juvenile Caribbean reef sharks, marbled grouper, and a loggerhead sea turtle on the surface. An unexpected mass spawning event of bivalves and Christmas tree worms was also observed during one afternoon dive.

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FGBNMS/NCCOS/CIOERT CRCP Fish and Benthic Fish Surveys
AUGUST 1-5, 2011

The FGBNMS research team, HBOI/FAU, CRCP, and NCCOS joined together to conduct about 80 fish and benthic surveys at East and West Flower Garden Banks to establish baseline data for a proposed research area as recommended in our Management Plan Review process.

Conditions were perfect-- hardly any current, well over 100 foot (34m) visibility, flat calm surface conditions, and around 85F (29C) water temperature. Divers sighted a manta ray and several sharks.

A small lionfish in a clear container following his capture.
This small lionfish was captured at West Flower Garden Bank and brought back to the sanctuary office to serve as an outreach tool.

An item of note is the collection of a lionfish at West Flower Garden Bank by NOAA Divers Marissa Nuttall and Amy Uhrin. This was the third official sighting of the invasive species in the sanctuary. The captured lionfish is now in a tank at the FGBNMS Galveston office.

A reconnaissance dive was conducted at Stetson Bank.

AUGUST 8-12, 2011

Sanctuary staff joined Sylvia Earle along with professors, faculty, and graduate students from the Harte Research Institute (HRI) at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, on a visit to Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The cruise was designed to promote the unique research opportunities at the Flower Garden Banks and introduce the use of scuba diving as a scientific tool. The group visited all three banks in the sanctuary, in addition to conducting one dive on HI-389A.

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AUGUST 19-21, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks research team, along with researchers from the University of Texas (UT) and the Navy Research Laboratory (NRL), conducted a cruise to document the annual coral spawning event at the sanctuary. The corals spawned spectacularly, and as predicted.

UT divers collected fragments and spawn for genetic analysis, and researchers from the NRL collected data on current movement around the banks.

Whale shark swimming directly toward the camera
This was the first Whale Shark ever tagged inside the sanctuary. Photo: FGBNMS/Eckert

Following the spawning, the researchers were treated to an encounter with a friendly male Whale Shark, about 19 feet (6.5m) in length, at West Flower Garden Bank. The FGBNMS research team successfully tagged the shark with a Pop-Up Archival Tag (PAT).


Divers from NCCOS, CIOERT, TAMUG, and FGBNMS conducted technical diving operations to collect the first round of fish and benthic surveys at depths between 100 and 150 feet (34-51m).  A total of 35 surveys were conducted at East (26) and West (9) Flower Garden Banks.

Technical divers ascending from deeper reefs within the sanctuary 
Technical divers ascending from dives to
deeper reefs in the sanctuary.

Close to 100 camera drops were conducted to groundtruth the habitat maps.  Acoustic surveys were conducted to identify fish densities and aggregations, in addition to features such as gas seeps.

We shared this expedition with the public on Facebook and our website under the title Coral Connections in the Gulf. Scientists on board the Nancy Foster posted Daily Logs and answered over 100 questions submitted by students following the expedition.

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AUGUST 25-29, 2011

The FGBNMS research team was joined by Dr. Will Heyman (TAMU), a sanctuary advisory council member, on a cruise to conduct ROV and acoustic surveys with the goal of identifying marbled grouper populations at Geyer Bank, as well as continue characterization of the bank. 

Just one marbled grouper was observed by ROV, but no significant aggregations were observed by any method.

Dense cover of sargassum covering the sea floor
A dense cover of sargassum surprised divers
at Geyer Bank.
Photo: FGBNMS/Eckert

During a scuba dive to assess the status of fish populations on the bank crest, a dense field of sargassum was observed and documented. 

SEPTEMBER 15-16, 2011

The Flower Garden Banks research team conducted a successful cruise to conduct maintenance and inspections on the sanctuary mooring buoy system and remove marine debris. Four mooring buoys were inspected at East Flower Garden Bank and three were inspected at West Flower Garden Bank.

Two researchers standing on a boat deck next to a large anchor hauled up off the reef
Michelle Johnston and John Embesi pose with an anchor removed from Stetson Bank. Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

In addition to the mooring inspections, algae samples were taken at Stetson and Geyer Bank for identification and analysis by Dr. Suzanne Fredericq at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Increased levels of algae have raised concern at Stetson Bank, and an unusual field of attached Sargassum had been recently observed at Geyer Bank. Dr. Fredericq will be identifying the algae samples to assist us in learning about the events.

Following the algae sample collection, the researchers and R/V MANTA crew were treated to an encounter with a friendly manta ray at Geyer Bank.

For a detailed description of this cruise, please visit the Resource Protection Cruise page.

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R/V MANTA was chartered by several different user groups during the 2011 research season.  TAMUG has a reduced day rate of $2500/day.  Other charters are charged approximately $5000/day.  Some charters are charged an additional fuel cost, based on fuel use.

December 17-20, 2010

Nearshore survey lines off the coast of Galveston.  Students were studying the erosion effects around Galveston Bay.

February 8-10, 2011
March 15-17, 2011

Between these two cruises over 100GB of data was collected, and some of their survey revealed data that differed from previous surveys.

March 31, 2011

R/V MANTA was used to take A&M divers out to the windfarm buoy, drop the divers into the water to look for submerged instrumentation, and retrieve it.  The mission was a success and the package was found and craned off the vessel when it arrived at the fuel dock at the end of the day.

NOSB Field Trip
April 29, 2011

A&M hosted the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB) at their Galveston campus and the afternoon before the bowl, some of the students came aboard R/V MANTA for a day trip out past the jetties.  They underwent a familiarization with the vessel, its safety features and protocols, and conducted sampling techniques while underway.  It was a great opportunity for high school students to get first-hand experience aboard a research vessel.

For a more detailed description of this cruise, please visit the NOSB Field Trip page.

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UTMSI–Mapping Cruise
May 21-28, 2011

R/V MANTA traveled a little over 1000 miles during the cruise (about 560 transit, and almost 500 in operations).

The purpose of the cruise was to train students in marine geology and geophysics field techniques.  Data was collected at the Mississippi Canyon and along the Grand Isle shoreface. Students later analyzed data to investigate issues regarding sediment transport at these two locations.

Thanks to the efforts of the crew, the dive compressors were used for the air gun tanks, allowing the ability to shoot more often and at higher capacity.

Navy Research Laboratory
June 4-7, 2011
June 9-12, 2011

The objectives for these two MORT cruises were (1) to map turbulence, hydrography, and water flow and (2) to evaluate inherent optical properties over the East Flower Garden Bank. Over 400 profiles of salinity, temperature, and current shear were acquired.

June 24-July 1, 2011

The cruise traveled 1359 nautical miles, successfully conducting surveys mapping the extent of the dead zone from the Mississippi River along the Texas coast.

NOAA Ship Foster personnel transfer
August 1, 2011

R/V MANTA responded to the need to get a scientist transferred to shore for medical reasons.  The MANTA can travel about twice the speed of the NOAA ship Nancy Foster, so the MANTA responded, and met Foster on their transit back to Galveston.  After the transfer, the MANTA returned to port with the scientist and Foster resumed its cruise and was able to salvage an extra day of collection.

August 9-15, 2011

September 19-23, 2011

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Return to 2011 Research Summary web page.

Download a copy of the 2011 Research Report (76kb pdf)

Access other sanctuary Research Reports.

If you have any questions about the sanctuary's 2011 research activities or the 2011 Research Report, please contact Emma Hickerson.

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