Our National Marine Sanctuaries

America’s national marine sanctuaries provide all a diver could ask for. From extraordinary coral reefs and lush kelp forests to large pelagic animals and outstanding, historically significant shipwrecks, the sanctuaries are home to a host of marvels.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), manages a system of 14 marine protected areas that encompass more than 150,000 square miles — more than the total area of all our national parks. Since 1972 the office has conducted research, monitoring and exploration, managed compatible recreational and commercial activities, promoted conservation and provided educational programs.

Map of US labelling national marine sanctuaries

As divers we don’t always appreciate the wonder of our underwater experiences; some of the things we accept as commonplace are amazing to nondivers. Many people have said that if you don’t understand something, you won’t care about it, and if you don’t care about it, you won’t protect it. A healthy ocean is critical to the health of the human race, and we divers have a unique responsibility to advocate for its protection.

This spring I conducted a series of dives in the Florida Keys, where I had not dived for some time. Because of the popularity of the sites I visited I expected to see overused reefs, and on the first dive I did. I thought the second site would be the same, but after 10 minutes I noticed I was seeing more fish. Then I began to notice there was more and healthier coral. The closer I looked, the more impressed I was. That part of the reef was actually recovering. We were in a special protected area of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. To see the change that resulted from our involvement made that my best sanctuary dive ever. (For me that is really saying something; I’m actually a shipwreck guy.)

Why should you dive the National Marine Sanctuaries? It’s about being an ambassador and telling the stories about what lies beneath the waves. If divers don’t speak for these places, who will? Dive into your National Marine Sanctuaries, and make a difference.

School of porkfish explore a coral reef
Porkfish school on the wreck of the Benwood, Florida Keys NMS.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

By Janene Fowler

When I tell folks that one of my favorite places on the planet to dive is off the coast of Texas, images of a brown Galveston beach muddied by the natural flow of rivers into the Gulf of Mexico don’t exactly inspire visions of undersea beauty. However, 115 miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border lies a jewel known as Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, where the water is so clear the visibility is often more than 100 feet.

My first trip to the sanctuary began with a bumpy boat ride. It was a Friday night, and I was trying to concentrate on the flood of safety and dive information I was getting as we motored past the jetties and into the gulf. At 10:30 p.m. I ate a snack, took some Dramamine and headed to bed as we steamed toward West Flower Garden Bank.

Diver approaches health corals and sponges
Healthy corals and sponges abound at Flower Garden Banks NMS.

I awoke at 5:30 the next morning to a change in the engine’s sound as the crew moored us to our first dive site. It had been a rough ride out, and I was a little groggy but happy to have found my sea legs. At 7 a.m. the pool was open, and with a giant stride from high above the water, I jumped in.

As I made my way down to the reef 80 feet below, I was joined by a dozen large barracudas. When I reached the reef I was amazed at the amount of coral cover. The reef has more coral than most Caribbean reefs I’ve seen, and fish were everywhere. I recognized damselfish, a spotted moray eel, a balloonfish and both queen and French angelfish. About 20 minutes into the dive we were joined by a curious manta ray. Sanctuary staff have identified more than 70 mantas by their unique belly markings, and I got to see one on my very first dive.

In what seemed like no time, the dive was over, and I made a slow trip up the mooring line to the boat. After lunch, conditions were good enough for a dive at a gas-production platform. The platform provided an unusual dive with a very different set of visitors and a steady current to swim against. Here we delighted in seeing big cowfish, filefish, jacks and lots of encrusting sponges where tiny gobies and blennies had found safe haven. Two large loggerhead turtles hung out with us for awhile, too.

Blenny with orange spots pokes head out of coral
A tessellated blenny peers from its hiding place on the leg of HI-389, an oil platform in Flower Garden Banks NMS.

I finished the day with two dives at East Flower Garden Bank, the second one after dark. During the night dive I doused my flashlight against my chest and waved my hands through the water to watch phosphorescent plankton bounce off them. The dive was eerie and wonderful. I had to be careful with my light, because shining it at one thing for too long allowed a clever jack to make a quick meal of the butterflyfish or other reef fish caught in the beam. We were lucky to see a couple of sharks swim by, although they weren’t interested enough to stick around. At the surface, it was time for warm brownies, Blue Bell ice cream and bed.

Overnight, we moved to Stetson Bank, which looked like an alien planet. There, salt domes had pushed the overlying rock layers up to almost 90 degrees, forming ridges and troughs. It looked like someone had plowed the bottom of the ocean. There was less coral, and scorpionfish were a common sight — that is, if you could spot them through their camouflage. All too soon, the trip was over, but in a day and a half I had logged eight incredible dives.

Those first dives in the sanctuary were 12 years ago, and I have returned 14 times since that trip. Over the years I have seen many rare sights, including a golden smooth trunkfish and even a whale shark. Someday I hope to see the schools of hammerheads that visit during the winter and the annual coral spawn in August. Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is truly an amazing place and a national treasure.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

By Capt. Philip Sammet

For the past 25 years my home and place of work has been Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. I have a strong connection to this special body of water. My work on dive charters and research boats, on deep, mixed-gas dives and as a technical adviser on dozens of film and TV productions has shaped who I am and has given me a unique perspective on the sanctuary.

Majestic kelp forest
Forests of giant kelp filter sunlight, but underneath these canopies hundreds of species of fishes, invertebrates and algae thrive in Monterey Bay NMS.

Many people have described Monterey Bay diving in many different ways. On good days it can be heaven on earth, and on bad days the environment can be brutally hostile. Thankfully, we tend to forget the bad days.

The extraordinary biological diversity in this cool, deep Pacific realm is unlike any place I’ve ever seen. In Monterey Bay, plankton blooms feed communities of fish. Strong upwelling of nutrients from the bay’s deep canyons combined with its remarkable inshore geology and topography helps make Monterey Bay prolific.

It’s only when you dive in the sanctuary that you can truly experience the beauty of its kelp forest, one of the largest in the nation. The amber glow cast by the kelp canopy sets the mood and provides shelter for all the inhabitants below. Multitudes of rockfish, sculpins, wolf eels and octopuses make their homes here. Beyond the kelp, deeper than 100 feet, the colors and invertebrate life are equally stunning. Massive schools of fish, soft corals and large vase sponges are some of the rewards that await.

The sanctuary supports one of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems and is home to numerous mammals, seabirds, fishes, invertebrates and plants. An abundance of life — from tiny plankton to huge blue whales — thrives in these waters.

In some of the more remote areas of the sanctuary, such as Point Lobos State Reserve and the Big Sur coast, long rocky coastlines create some of the most prolific reefs in the world, as well as my favorite dive spots. Here, encrusting marine life in all shapes and colors drape canyon walls more than 150 feet high, and large schools of rockfish cruise through beds of towering kelp.

Sassy sea otter floats on its back
A sea otter floats among kelp at the Monterey Breakwater, Monterey Bay NMS.

The sanctuary’s relatively healthy kelp forest suggests that the ocean ecosystem here is in relative balance. Sea otters, our iconic keystone species, eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that gorge on giant kelp. Without sea otters to keep them in check, these grazing animals can destroy the kelp forests that many animals — including California sea lions, harbor seals and migrating whales — depend on for food or use to escape from storms or predators.

Divers have a vested interest in keeping special places like Monterey Bay healthy for future generations. The quality of the diving here in the place I call home has improved dramatically since I arrived nearly 30 years ago. It’s a trend I hope continues for the next 30 years and beyond.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

By Stephen Frink

“Sanctuary” is not a novel concept in the Florida Keys. When the fragile corals off Key Largo were threatened by divers with crowbars decimating the reef in pursuit of souvenirs to sell, protection was implemented by the creation of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in 1960. The Keys’ best corals, however, are those of the fringing reefs 4 to 6 miles offshore, beyond the purview of Florida statutes. If protection was to be effected for those reefs, it had to be the job of the federal government.

In 1975 NOAA’s fledgling National Marine Sanctuaries program established Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary and then, in the lower keys in 1981, Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.

Diver approaches school of yellow grunts
Florida Keys NMS is known for large, colorful schools of fish like these grunts at Snapper Ledge off Key Largo.

Throughout the 1980s, oil-drilling proposals, deteriorating water quality and the loss of coral-reef cover were alarming enough, but then several large vessel groundings scarified pristine reefs. On Nov. 16, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the bill establishing Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This new sanctuary integrated both the Key Largo and Looe Key sanctuaries and guaranteed protection for 2,800 square miles of Florida Keys waters.

As favorably as the sanctuary is regarded today, various user groups expressed considerable consternation when it was proposed in the late 1980s. Conchs (the colloquial appellation for long-time Keys residents) are a fiercely independent lot, and they didn’t want the government telling them what they could and, more significantly, could not do in their ocean. Regional director Billy Causey was hung in effigy beside the Overseas Highway, and emotional debate raged among conservationists and reef radicals. Eventually, once people understood the integral concept of zonation, the sanctuary was embraced.

The brilliance of the management plan is that certain areas are set aside for particular uses. For example, spearfishing, lobstering and hook-and-line angling are traditional fisheries in the Florida Keys, and throughout most of the sanctuary they are allowed. But there is a critical necessity for sanctuary preservation areas (SPAs), total no-take zones in which fish are safe to congregate and breed, and marine life is concentrated to the delight of the hundreds of thousands of scuba divers who visit each year.

A corollary benefit of the SPAs is that the fish seem to know they are safe within them and have no fear of divers. With bubbles and flashes prompting no flight reflex, the sanctuary is one of the most productive environments for marine-life photography anywhere in the Caribbean or tropical Atlantic.

A Protected Oasis in the Dry Tortugas

By George Cathcart

The abundance and diversity of life in the Dry Tortugas sets them apart. Lying 70 miles west of Key West, these small cays have two distinct advantages: remoteness and the protection afforded by the research and conservation programs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The result of this protection is evident as I cruise slowly along the back of the reef and come face to face with a 4-foot goliath grouper lolling in a coral ravine as cleaner gobies graze on his big lips and flared gill covers. Nassau, tiger and black grouper watch me pass. These larger reef predators, along with the reef and blacktip sharks occasionally spotted here, distinguish the Tortugas from other Caribbean destinations that are rarely visited by big animals.

Blue-yellow Queen Angelfish against red-pink corals
Aquarius Reef Base, in addition to supporting saturation-diving science, provides habitat for marine creatures such as this Queen Angelfish, Florida Keys NMS.

Many Tortugas dive sites are actually small seamounts that rise as high as 40 feet above the sandy, 80-foot bottom. On a typical dive I might follow the mooring line to the sand and work my way up the coral monadnock as glass gobies dance around crevices, and dark blennies watch from the safety of their little holes in the rock. Gray and French angelfish, princess parrots, banded butterflyfish, hamlets and damselfish patrol the reef, munching on coral and sponges or defending their small territories. Barracuda hover at the perimeter like sentinels. Large tube and barrel sponges festooned with tiny zoanthids provide shelter for small crabs and groupers.

Because of the distance from Key West, liveaboard is the most efficient way to dive the Tortugas. From morning through the late afternoon, the Dry Tortugas are magical; creole wrasses and blue tangs congregate around colonies of brain and star coral and arched swim-throughs, spotlighted by the sun’s sharply angled rays. After dinner it’s time to take lights down and watch the effects of darkness on the reef. The night belongs to lobsters and morays and spectacularly elaborate basket stars. My first trip coincided with the coral spawn after the August full moon, and I watched as star and brain coral released millions of eggs and sperm into the water column. On the way back to the boat, I found horse-eye jacks gathering in the light under the boat and a lone squid swimming boldly toward me to check out my lights.

Gray’s Reef

Diver hanging out with fish and corals at Gray's Reef
A diver at Gray’s Reef NMS

Located 20 miles east of Sapelo Island, Ga., Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary features one of the largest nearshore live-bottom reefs in the southeastern United States. The 23-square-mile sanctuary lies in water 50 to 70 feet deep and is home to an abundance of invertebrates that make their homes in the reef’s complex rocky ledges, nooks and crevices.

Other marine life includes loggerhead turtles, Atlantic spotted dolphin and endangered northern right whales. In recognition of the area’s importance to a variety of marine life, the United Nations designated Gray’s Reef an International Biosphere Reserve.

Channel Islands

Pink-and-blue striped fish swims against kelp forest
A California sheephead in a kelp forest at Channel Islands NMS

If you don’t mind cold water, an amazing variety of marine life awaits in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. This sanctuary encompasses the waters surrounding San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands off California’s coast.

“The sanctuary is large and diverse, so each island area and each habitat offers something different,” said dive instructor Kathy deWet-Oleson. “Sea fans in red, orange and purple hues decorate rocky reefs covered with sea stars, urchins, nudibranchs and small reef fish. You can also see shallow-water species of rockfish, and some areas offer a good chance of diving with sea lions or harbor seals.”

Thunder Bay

In northeastern Michigan, Steve Kroll, owner of Great Lakes Divers, has been diving wrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary for nearly 50 years. The sanctuary protects one of America’s best-preserved and most significant collections of shipwrecks. More than 200 pioneer steamboats, majestic schooners and huge steel freighters wrecked near Thunder Bay, and many of these sites remain virtually unchanged.

“I have had customers come here from all over the world, and most will tell you they’ve never seen anything quite like this place,” Kroll said. “There’s so much history here, and thanks to the cold water, the ships are incredibly well preserved.”

Stellwagen Bank

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary offers divers an opportunity to experience New England’s offshore undersea environment at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. Strong currents and cold water create challenging dive conditions.

With 126 square miles of seafloor within recreational limits, the bank allows adventurous divers to explore areas no other diver has visited. Monkfish and schools of sand lance are common in the sand and gravel areas on top of Stellwagen Bank, while the boulders on Jeffrey’s Ledge hide Acadian redfish and Atlantic wolffish.

Pod of whales poke their heads up out of water
Although intentionally diving with whales in the northeastern U.S. is unlawful, surface tours offer opportunities to view these majestic animals in Stellwagen Bank NMS.

Four ships sunk on the bank are now relics that offer glimpses into the area’s maritime past. In partnership with local dive operators, the sanctuary has begun to install moorings on the wrecks for divers.

Cordell Bank

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary gets its name from the underwater mountain that rises to within 115 feet of the surface off Point Reyes, Calif. In 2010, a team of technical divers from NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries and the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology completed a series of deep dives in rigorous conditions on Cordell Bank. This was the first dive expedition to the bank since Cordell Expedition divers explored it more than 30 years ago. Divers returned to the boat astonished at the pristine condition and spectacular diversity of life covering the bank’s upper reef. The team took photos and video and collected samples of invertebrates that will be analyzed for evidence of ocean acidification and other effects of climate change.

Humpback Whale

One of the world’s most important humpback whale habitats lies in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. Twenty years ago, 1,370 square miles of this habitat was designated as the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. There divers can encounter wild dolphins, manta rays, green turtles, whitetip sharks and even endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

Marine biologist and diver Cynthia Hunter said she enjoys the abundance of corals in the sanctuary. “While Hawaii may have fewer species than other places, there is a lot of what we have,” she said. “And some of these sites are just plain gorgeous.” Hunter adds that diving Hawaii in the winter can be exhilarating. “The water might be a little chilly, but it’s pretty amazing to survey the reefs while being serenaded by humpbacks.”

American Samoa

Nestled in a submerged volcanic crater on the southwest shore of Tutuila island, the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa contains a wealth of biodiversity that includes 200 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish and other animals.

“I can’t express my amazement at seeing such healthy and plentiful staghorn coral in the waters around American Samoa,” said Kelly Anderson Tagarino, marine science coordinator at American Samoa Community College. “Being able to access gorgeous coral reefs from the shore is a real treat, especially when the viz is usually 50 feet or better!”

The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

By Joe Poe

About 17 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 230 feet of water, rests the remains of one of the most significant warships in American history, the USS Monitor. Described as a “tin can on a shingle,” the Union Navy’s Monitor fought the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, to an epic draw during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. The following December, the Monitor sank in a fierce storm while under tow near the cape. Lost for more than 100 years, it was discovered in 1973 and is now the underwater attraction of America’s first National Marine Sanctuary. Conditions at the site can be unforgiving, but the Monitor’s legacy as the country’s first armored warship makes it a compelling quest for technical divers.

Sandtiger sharks swim amongst a coral-encrusted shipwreck
Sandtiger sharks loiter on the Dixie Arrow, a tanker sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Today the Monitor is no longer intact; most of its stern section, the engine, the propeller, both cannons and the turret were excavated and moved to a state-of-the-art conservation facility at The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va. The museum’s USS Monitor Center enables visitors to walk the deck of a full-scale mock-up of the Monitor. However, for the adventurous and able, a technical dive to the vessel’s remains offers a poignant connection to those who lived and died in heroic service to a struggling nation. This year is the 150th anniversary of the USS Monitor; its fascinating story continues to awe and inspire new generations of divers and nondivers alike.

Enhancing its scope beyond the protection and preservation of the USS Monitor, the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary has taken the lead in NOAA’s efforts to research, survey and document ships lost during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. The abundant photos, video and sonar imagery collected during the Battle of the Atlantic Project are the result of collaboration between NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute, East Carolina University, the National Park Service, the State of North Carolina and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal and Ocean Science.

Shipwreck on the bottom of the ocean
The U-85 is one of many wrecks surveyed in the Battle of the Atlantic Project.

The project’s goals include examination of the region’s historically significant wrecks, their representation of a maritime battlefield and their relationship to other elements such as shipping lanes and geographical features. This investigation has produced numerous outreach materials, including archaeological site plans, blogs, posters, websites, dive slates and videos.

Information collected from vessels including the U-701, HMT Bedfordshire and U.S. Navy patrol boat YP-389 (a victim of the U-701‘s rampage found during the 2009 Battle of the Atlantic Expedition) is not only used for scientific purposes; it brings pieces of our nation’s history to people who may never experience these amazing sites for themselves. The research will contribute to a more informed discussion about possible future protection and management of the maritime archaeological resources off North Carolina.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2012