Roughly 110 miles from Freeport, I plunged six feet down from the M/V Fling, into the Gulf of Mexico to explore the Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Here, rays of sun stream through Jolly Rancher-blue waters, a setting unlike anything near the shore. A school of fish gathered under the boat and a torpedo-shaped barracuda hung motionless in the water 20 yards away. Admiring his buoyancy control, I swam down to the reef, clearly visible 80 feet below.
This sanctuary protects the northern-most coral reefs in the continental United States, including the West and East banks, 65 to 120 feet below the surface, and Stetson Bank, a 1,500-foot-long ridge of pinnacles.
The sheer variety of marine life and endless blue in all directions takes hours to explore.
Most divers come here from Freeport aboard the Fling, as I did. In spring, some brave 70° waters and often-rough seas for the chance to see schools of hammerhead sharks. But summer water temperatures approach the mid-80s, and divers enjoy more tranquil conditions for exploring the reef and its residents: shellfish, sea urchins, 280 species of fish (including 20 species of sharks and rays), loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles, and the occasional visiting dolphin.
The sheer variety of marine life and endless blue in all directions takes hours to explore, but a dwindling air supply forced me to surface after 40 minutes of awe. Breakfast awaited on board; wet and happy divers crowded into the galley’s long booths, devouring eggs, bacon, and biscuits while swapping tales of what we’d seen below.
Soon it was time to gear up again. In fact, the weekend schedule typically reads dive, eat, sleep, dive, eat, sleep—with a total of five dives on Saturday and two on Sunday. Generally, it includes two dives at the West Bank, an old oil rig platform (always one of my favorites), and two at the East Bank, one of them a night dive, then two at Stetson on Sunday morning. Three-day trips include a total of 11 dives—five at the West Bank, four at the East, and two at Stetson.
We sleep in bunks below deck, four to a room, and nap on lounge chairs on the sun deck.
The distance from shore, depth, and often-strong currents make this an experience for advanced divers only. The Fling welcomes non-divers age 13 and older, but given the depth of the reefs, there is little to see from the surface.