In early morning light, 22 divers crowd the back deck of the Fling, a 100-foot live-aboard boat. We're a straight 100 miles east from the Texas shore, floating in the Gulf of Mexico. Seventy feet beneath us lies the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a little-known diver's paradise with more than 20 kinds of coral, hundreds of species of fish, invertebrates, sharks, and rays. One of the most overlooked marine sanctuaries in the world is all ours for three days.
From February to October, the Fling offers two- and three-day dive trips to the Flower Gardens departing from Freeport, just south of Houston. Up to 27 passengers board on Friday evening, and the boat motors to the sanctuary through the night.
"In Cozumel or the Keys, you have a dozen boats with 40 divers each. Here there are maybe 30 people diving," says Mike Winters, a dive instructor at Tom's Dive & Swim in Austin, Texas. Sanctuary staff estimates just 2,000 divers visit a year.
Life above the Flower Gardens may be quiet, but all that changes after a plunge into the federally protected waters (only hook-and-line fishing has been allowed here since 1992). Schools of silvery jacks dance, torpedo-shape barracudas sit motionless beneath the boat, and clusters of brown chromis circle above bowling balls of brain coral. Bluehead wrasses, queen angelfish – splatters of blue with solid yellow tails – and French angelfish swim by. While the diversity of species isn't quite what it is in the Caribbean, you'll see more of every creature anywhere you look. Coral covers 50 percent of the floor, versus 6 percent on other major reefs. According to a 2009 study, the average biomass here is greater than that of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Puerto Rico combined. And it's all there in sparkling clarity. "Most of the time we have visibility of 100 feet, sometimes double that," says sanctuary research coordinator Emma Hickerson.
At night we descend the line in inky blackness broken only by the occasional glow stick, our handheld dive lights, and a bright strobe attached to the bottom of the line. Alien-like brittle stars retreat from my approach. Fish freeze like deer in headlights. Shine a light on one too long and a predator will take advantage of an easy supper – an impressive if slightly guilt-inducing natural process to observe.
Back on the boat, some folks buy cold beers from the kitchen, and the story swapping grows animated. There are no tiny umbrella drinks on this trip – let alone beaches to drink them on. The Fling is cozy, with shared cabins, one private shower, and a small shared kitchen. "Divers love the freedom," says Warren Roseberry, owner of Tom's Dive & Swim. "It's an incredible place." And just an hour's drive from Houston, Flower Garden Banks is right under our noses.