Diving the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary

Years ago, I remember Aaron telling me about Flower Gardens and how it was this incredibly unique place in the Gulf of Mexico and that he wanted to dive it (if it’s underwater, he wants to dive it, but that’s beside the point). The problem is that the only charter to go there leaves out of Freeport, TX and is usually sold out when it isn’t blown out. If you live outside of a day’s drive from Freeport, it’s too risky to plan a trip down, pay for flights, only to be told that the seas are too rough and that a storm is blowing in. So, it was put on the back burner and there it stayed. Until this past June.

 
 

On Friday afternoon, Aaron asked me if he could go diving the next week - there were some open spots on a liveaboard. I asked him where to, and he told me Flower Gardens. Ha, not without he you couldn’t! But we had one problem - kids. We didn’t have anyone to stay with them. In a flurry, I got online, checked flights, and, much to my utter shock, found flights for a decent price that we were able to book using miles. A few calls to grandparents to see if they were available, and flights were booked. That evening, I stopped by the dive shop to pay. Within the course of about 5 hours, we had managed to book our first trip to Flower Gardens; it would also be the first time we left the kids overnight. I then proceeded to spend the next three days stressing and worrying about leaving the girls, and of course, fighting the #momguilt of leaving 6 month old Julie.

The charter for our trip was a Wednesday - Friday with plans to dive the Stetson Bank and the Kraken. We were told that the boat would be leaving the dock promptly at 7PM. So, we left plenty early to make sure we would have the time we needed to unload the gear from the car on to the boat. Turns out, when they said “leaves promptly at 7” they really meant, “we will start talking to you around 7, have you sign some forms, and then the boat will be open to put your gear on to, around 7:45, and then we will leave the dock around 10:00. Still, I would have gotten there early; it stresses me out to be running late, despite the fact that I nearly always am.

Once we were done with the on shore briefing, we loaded our gear on to the boat and picked out our bunks. There are 4 bunks to a room and each bunk has a curtain to pull closed for a little bit of privacy. Maximum capacity on the boat is 31 divers and they were only about half full on our charter. Honestly, I’m not sure that I would enjoy it being a full boat. It’s a good size boat, but 31 people + 6 crew is a lot of people.

 Galley of the MV Fling

Galley of the MV Fling

The plan was to drive out overnight from the port to our first dive site. We left the dock at 10:00PM, made our way through the inland waterway out to the Gulf and then spent the next 8 hours listening to the hum of engines, gently being rocked side to side as we headed out to the sanctuary. We were warned that many people get seasick and everyone was issued a garbage bag that we were to carry at all times in case a bout of seasickness suddenly overcame us. Thankfully, Aaron and I were both fine even without seasickness medication. That night, we drifted off to sleep with the white noise of the engines and the gentle rocking of the boat.

The next morning, we were woken up bright and early at 6:00 AM. Already prepared for us was a light continental breakfast. Our first dive was scheduled for 7:00 AM. We were given a dive briefing from one of two dive masters on board. He was fast talking and it was clear he knew this site well. We were warned of the current, but it’s swiftness was not adequately conveyed (at least, I did’t get the memo). The crew had tied a lead line from the mooring to the back of the boat. After jumping in, we were to drift to the line, and then use it get to the buoy and then down the mooring line. At the bottom, there was a sight line we could follow out and back, an easy way for us to keep our bearings on the dive as there was no guide with us. We were diving single tanks, although I think they allow doubles, but our bottom time was limited by recreational no decompression limits. It was made very clear that if anyone surpassed the no decompression time limits on their computers, they would be required to sit out for 24 hours. Little bit of technical jargon here, but they also require the ppO2 to be set to 1.4, one of the more conservative settings.

 Aaron and I diving on the Kraken | Photo Courtesy of  Dustin Ainsworth  of  Southeast Texas Scuba

Aaron and I diving on the Kraken | Photo Courtesy of Dustin Ainsworth of Southeast Texas Scuba

After completing our safety stop, we drifted to the back of the boat, grabbed on to one of the two tow lines they put out, and got ourselves out of the water. During our surface interval, we were served breakfast and our tanks were refilled. The second dive was scheduled for 10:00AM. And the entire process repeated. Five dives, at three different dive sites, were scheduled for the first day. Between each dive, there was plenty of food available. And after the night dive, there are hot fudge sundaes. I’ll be honest, the two galley chefs were the best! There’s nothing better than a hot fudge sundae after a long day of diving.

 Grouper, Stetson Bank | Photo Courtesy of  Dustin Ainsworth  of  Southeast Texas Scuba

Grouper, Stetson Bank | Photo Courtesy of Dustin Ainsworth of Southeast Texas Scuba

I’ll be honest, from the pictures and all the hype around the Flower Gardens, I think I had my expectations set a little high. I expected to see a lot more colorful reefs full of fish. Instead, it was pretty gray and monochromatic (but still full of fish). After some research, it seems like the Stetson Bank is very different from either the East Bank or the West Bank of the Flower Gardens. Perhaps if we had visited one of those sites, my impressions would be different. This entire area is unique in that it’s not uncommon to see pelagics - sting ray, sharks and the like - since it’s far enough off shore for those species, but also shallow enough for recreational diving. While we did see a couple of rays, dozens of eels, and lots of reef fish, the geological formations were far more interesting. All in all, the diving wasn’t bad, just different than I had expected. If the stars were to align again, I might consider another trip out there.

That evening, we motored over to the Kraken dive site. The skies were clear giving us a fabulous show of the night sky, and the horizon was dotted with the small, flickering lights of oil rigs. Dolphins played in the wake of the Fling as she headed from one site to the next. The top deck afforded a relaxing place to take in the night sky and enjoy the cool ocean breeze. Had I not been so tired, I probably would have stayed up there for hours. Alas, five dives that day had me pretty beat and I headed to bed.

 Schooling Fish on the Kraken | Photo Courtesy of  Dustin Ainsworth  of  Southeast Texas Scuba

Schooling Fish on the Kraken | Photo Courtesy of Dustin Ainsworth of Southeast Texas Scuba

The second day we had two dives scheduled on the Kraken, a former cargo vessel that was cleaned and sunk on January 20, 2017 as an artificial reef by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. It sits upright in 140 feet of water with the wheel house coming up to about 70 feet. There’s a lot to see on this wreck and some easy penetration opportunities. On our second dive, I got to swim through a school of red snapper gathered on one of the decks. Having dove mostly shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, it was a treat to see so much wildlife! Some people even saw a small shark (I was jealous!). Between the Stetson Bank and the Kraken, I’ll say that I much preferred the Kraken. There was a lot to see, and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for shipwrecks.

After our two dives, it was time to head back to reality (and cell service). It took us about 5 hours to get back, during which time I was able to catch a rare, and very welcome, nap. I was happy to hear that the girls did well in our absence - which was a relief. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried the entire time, especially since we had no way in which to contact them if we needed to (the boat does have a satellite phone for use in emergency situations).

 Crane Rigging on the Kraken | Photo Courtesy of  Dustin Ainsworth  of  Southeast Texas Scuba

Crane Rigging on the Kraken | Photo Courtesy of Dustin Ainsworth of Southeast Texas Scuba

Would I do another charter with the Fling? Probably not. Do I regret going? Absolutely not. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever regretted a dive, no matter how crappy the vis, how cold the water, or how expensive the trip may have been. Overall, the diving was ok and I really enjoyed the Kraken, but we were pretty restricted in what we were “allowed” to do. We were not allowed to carry a reel of any sort (so no submersible marker buoys), we were required to set our computers to a more conservative setting than what we normally dive, and I generally felt treated a bit like a child due to some of their policies in place. I get it though - I think the Fling is the first “dive trip” many local divers do. I suspect that they see primarily divers that have only a few dives after their open water certification dives, if they have any at all. They want to keep people safe and make sure everyone returns to shore safely. After all, a dive accident is terrible for business! Nonetheless, the food was delicious and plentiful, the boat was clean and well laid out, and it was a most welcome, and very much needed, break from being mom for a few days.

Dive the Flower Gardens

Right now, there is only one boat that offers charters to the Flower Gardens. It’s the MV Fling and is based out of Freeport, TX. They operate charters from February - October, but it’s not uncommon to be blown out due to adverse weather. Many dive shops along the Gulf Coast will book charters with them and they are quite often sold out. As individuals, your best bet would be to contact Fling Charters to see if they have any upcoming charters that fit your schedule. They may be able to direct you to the dive shop that has booked the boat, or it may be possible to book directly with them. We booked with a local dive shop, but there were others who had not done so on our charter.

Some things that might be helpful to know:

  • There is no cell service out there, but the boat does have a satellite phone that can both make and receive calls in case of emergencies

  • You’ll need all your own gear and they do not carry any backup gear on board

  • There are charging facilities for cameras, cell phones, etc. Some bunks have power outlets, but most do not

  • Nitrox is available on board for an additional fee

  • Bedding, food, water, and lemonade are all inlcluded. Beer and pop are available on board for purchase

  • You’ll need to bring your own towels (travel hack: linen towels are awesome! They are naturally anti-microbial, dry fast - even faster than a microfiber towel, absorb a ton, and pack up pretty small)

  • You can bring your own food, but it must stay in the galley or out on the decks - it is not allowed in the bunk areas

  • There are showers on board for your use

On their website, you can find their contact information and there is a really good FAQ section that answers a lot of questions. Let us know if you end up booking a trip with them!