Texas Travel

Flower Garden Banks: Texas’ National Marine Sanctuary

By Peter Simek 3.25.19

Perhaps the most incredible geological formation in Texas lies not on land but around 100 miles off the shores of Galveston.

Around 10 to 15 thousand years ago, salt domes — mineral sedimentation formed by the rapid evaporation of sea water — created two large underwater mountains in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. The warm waters there have helped to give rise to an incredible biodiversity of sea life over the tops of these elevated underwater areas, which now comprise a federally protected marine sanctuary.

1967 Flower Garden Dive. Pictured: Bob, Dick Thomey, & Bob Dooley. Photo released by World Book Science Service.

Discovering the Flower Gardens

In 1992, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary became a federally designated underwater area, protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (one of only 14 today). But for a long time, no one knew of their existence. In 1936, a U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey discovered the banks while conducting a hydrographical survey of the Gulf of Mexico. Further exploration in the 1960s led a marine biologist at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to discover that the banks were home to an extensive network of coral colonies supporting a wide array of marine life.

An Underwater Wonderland

Because of their peculiar location atop large salt dome formations, the Flower Garden corals host several rare and unique species. They are perhaps most famous for the massive star and brain corals, which form on top of each other and pile up to sizes as large as small cars. Another treasured species is the golden smooth trunkfish, whose brilliant yellow color isn’t seen in trunkfish found elsewhere in the Gulf or Caribbean. The gardens are also home to moray eels, manta rays, spotted eagle rays, the colorful Mardi Gras wrasse, and mud volcanos.

Exploring the Gardens

To explore the gardens, you’ll need two things: a boat and some scuba gear. NOAA lists several fishing and scuba charters on its website, as well as downloadable charts to direct you to the gardens if you take a private boat. One word of caution: Weather can be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous out in the Gulf, so be sure to take the proper precautions. When in doubt, hire an expert guide.

For more of Texas’ coastal life, catch the annual baby sea turtle hatchings.

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