What Will I See at the Flower Garden Banks?

Close up view of a school of striped fish
A Marbled Grouper is a rare find, but more likely in the sanctuary than just about anywhere else. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

So, you're not a diver but you'd like to feel like one? This is the dive trip for you! If you are a diver, this is also a great way to preview the reefs at East and West Flower Garden Banks.

A typical dive begins with a leap into crystal blue waters. Upon submerging, you are immediately greeted by several barracuda keeping a watchful eye.

A group of barracuda hovering beneath a dive boat.
Great Barracuda keep watch beneath a dive boat. (Photo: Emma Hickerson/FGBNMS)

Schools of chub and jack may also pass through the area.

Close up view of a school of large horse-eye jacks.
Horse-eye Jacks school up in the water column. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Looking down, you can already make out the reef 60 feet below. Huge coral heads stretch as far as the eye can see. You can't see much detail at this point, so just keep diving.

Two divers on the reef far below with their bubbles streaming upward.
Divers explore the reef 60 feet below. (Photo: Emma Hickerson/FGBNMS)

As you approach the top of the reef you start to see all of the fish. Many hover near the corals, waiting to duck for cover should the need arise.

Small fish all around a prominent colongy of star coral
Fish collect around Mountainous Star Coral. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

There is so much coral that you can hardly believe your eyes!  Boulders of coral pile on top of one another creating an amazing seascape. As much as 52% of the bottom is covered in live coral.

Large corals crowded together on the reef
Boulders of coral pile up on the reef. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Colorful sponges, large and small, fill many of the spaces between and around corals.

Large red and orange sponges growing beneath two brain corals.
Large, colorful sponges add to the beauty of the reef. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Bluehead wrasses, blue and brown chromis, and a variety of damselfish are the most common fish species you'll see atop the reef.

A cluster of adult and juvenile bluehead wrasse swimming close to the coral
Large groups of Bluehead Wrasse, in various life stages, are everywhere on the reef. (Photo: Emma Hickerson/FGBNMS)

You should also keep an eye out for colorful butterflyfish and parrotfish. You might even hear parrotfish before you see them, due to the crunching noises they make while eating algae off the reef.

A blue and green parrotfish about to eat some algae
A Queen Parrotfish about to use its beak-like teeth to scrape algae off the reef. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Groupers are also quite noticeable here--a sure sign of a healthy reef!

A light brown grouper swims above the reef.
Yellowmouth Grouper are one of the more common species in the sanctuary. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

But, not everything swims out in the open. Under ledges you may find squirrelfish, pufferfish, or eels.

A black and white speckled eel peeking out from under the edge of a coral.
A Spotted Moray peeks out from under a coral. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Crabs and shrimp sometimes venture out onto the reef, but most often hide out in the nooks and crannies.

Close up of 6 small red shrimp on reef rock
Red Night shrimp are everywhere, but they are much easier to find at night when their tiny eyes reflect your light. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)
A flat-shaped crab hiding in a reef crevice with pincers extended
A Blackpoint Sculling Crab is an interesting find. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Christmas tree worms live right in the middle of coral heads. Their bodies are encased in tubes (which the corals grow around) with just their colorful, tree-shaped gills extending out into the water. They will retract completely into their tubes if startled.

17 pairs of feathery, spiral gills that look like Christmas trees
Christmas Tree Worms prove that worms can be beautiful! (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

As you cruise over the reef, don't forget to look closely at the corals themselves. From a distance, they may look like stone, but corals are animals made of hundreds of small polyps across their surface.

Close up of coral polyps without the tentacles showing
Polyps of Great Star Coral are perhaps the easiest to spot. They almost look like small gumdrops when their tentacles are retracted. (Photo: FGBNMS/CRCP)
Hundreds of coral polyps with their tentacles extended
Coral polyps may be more obvious at night, when they extend their tentacles for feeding. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Eventually you will arrive at an open sand flat or even a sand channel.

A sand channel fills space between two sections of reef
Most of the sand between sections of reef is parrotfish poop! Crushed bits of coral get consumed as parrotfish scrape algae off the reef, then get excreted later. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

This is where you may find an occasional nurse shark, sea turtle or stingray resting. Queen conchs like these areas too

A loggerhead turtle resting at the edge of a sand patch
This Loggerhead Sea Turtle has found a safe place to rest near the edge of the reef. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Stay still for a while and you’ll find that the barren-looking sand is actually full of life!

A lizard-like fish rests on the sand
Lizardfish perch motionless on the sand, relying on their blotchy colors for camouflage. (Photo: Emma Hickerson/FGBNMS)
A small white fish sits upright with its tail in a burrow in the sand
Yellowheaded Jawfish hover vertically above the sand, ready to dart back into their burrows at the first sign of danger. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Don’t forget to look up every once in a while or you might miss a passing manta ray, spotted eagle ray, or shark. These large animals swim silently over the reef. If you’re not looking at the right time, you may never know they are there.

A manta ray swims high above the reef and sand flat
Over 80 individual Manta Rays have been identified in the sanctuary. They are identified by the patterns on their bellies. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

On the way back to the surface, keep your eyes open.

Long view of divers swimming back to the boat at the surface with the reef far below
There are still things to see once you leave the reef and head back to the boat. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

You never know what you’ll see floating by you...

A jellyfish floating upside down in midwater
Moon Jellies (upside down or right side up) and many smaller gelatinous creatures are found throughout the water column, you just have to adjust your focus to see them. (Photo: Emma Hickerson/FGBNMS)

or cruising beneath you!

Long view from reef to boat at the surface with a manta ray swimming down close to the reef
Manta Rays some times visit the reef after divers head back tot he boat. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/FGBNMS)

Even at your safety stop beneath the boat, there’s plenty to watch, and those barracuda will still be waiting to keep a watchful eye on you.

Two divers hanging on a line beneath a boat while a group of barracuda swim alongside them.
Great Barracuda float right next to divers and give them the eye. (Photo: Emma Hickerson/FGBNMS)

There’s never a dull moment at the Flower Garden Banks!