The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary:
inspiration for the Tennessee Aquarium’s Secret Reef exhibit
Tenn. (Feb. 21, 2005) – Deep in the blue waters of the
Gulf of Mexico lies a coral reef that shouldn’t exist.
This reef system, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary,
is the northernmost reef in North America and is inspiration
for the Secret Reef exhibit in the Tennessee Aquarium’s
new Ocean Journey building.
coral reefs are found only in tropical and sub-tropical waters
around the world, but the Flower Garden Banks are located approximately
110 miles off the coast of Texas, far north of the typical latitude
for coral reefs. The water there should be too deep and too
cold to support a reef system. However, warm ocean currents
and geologic formations called salt domes allow the reef to
exist in this unlikely location.
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is really an ocean
oasis,” said Jackson Andrews, Tennessee Aquarium director
of husbandry and operations. “Not only do a variety of
fish and other marine animals call the reef home, it is also
a haven for larger, open-ocean animals to feed and reproduce.
water in the Tennessee River, which flows right outside our
door, eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico and illustrates
just how interconnected these ecosystems really are,”
he added. “What we do in our own backyard doesn’t
just affect us, it affects other areas as well.”
many years, the splendor of the Flower Garden Banks lay hidden
and unknown. Fishermen in the area would occasionally bring
up colorful bits of “rock” on their hooks and anchors.
These colorful bits of rock were actually pieces of coral, and
their flower-like appearance and bright colors prompted the
fishermen to name the area. However, the reef wasn’t explored
by scuba divers until the 1960s and what they found was amazing.
the waves, these divers discovered an immense reef with huge
schools of tropical fish, rays, sea turtles and sharks. Giant
star coral, brain coral heads the size of a small car and densely
packed corals stretched as far as the eye could see. Approximately
25 types of coral have been identified in the Flower Garden
Banks Sanctuary. Scientists estimate that coral coverage on
the East and West Flower Garden Banks is more than twice as
dense as reefs found in the Florida Keys. Scientists soon began
to study this marine system using divers and submersible vehicles
and discovered that the reef extended to depths of more than
biological diversity and beauty prompted researchers and recreational
divers to seek protection for the Flower Gardens. In the 1970s
they launched what would become a 20-year effort, culminating
in 1992 when the Flower Garden Banks was declared a National
Aquarium’s Secret Reef exhibit, the beautiful coral formations
are artificial and were created by pressing coral-shaped molds
into wet concrete and then painting the concrete to mimic the
coral species found in the Flower Garden Banks. Nearly 5,000
animals call this exhibit home, including sand tiger sharks,
sandbar sharks, stingrays, sea turtles and thousands of smaller
reef fish. Like the animals in the actual Flower Garden Banks,
the smaller fish tend to stay close to the reef formations,
while the larger, open-ocean animals swim above.
of large, open-ocean animals make find their way to the Flower
Garden Banks Sanctuary throughout the year. These yearly visitors
include a variety of sharks, rays and turtles.
largest animals found in the Secret Reef exhibit are the toothy
sand tiger sharks. Although they can reach lengths of up to
10 feet and weights of more than 250 pounds, these sharks pose
little threat to humans. At the Aquarium, they are fed a diet
of mackerel, herring and other seafood.
many of the world’s reef systems, the Flower Garden Banks
are considered pristine. They exist in an area of good water
clarity, appropriate temperature and proper salinity levels.
Although some coral bleaching (a sign of damage to the reef-building
coral) has been observed, it is not considered significant.
Studies show that the coral cover hasn’t changed much
in the 618,000-gallon Secret Reef exhibit are monitored carefully
by the Aquarium staff. The temperature, oxygen and ammonia levels
are tested to ensure the animals in the exhibit remain healthy.
The salinity of the water is also monitored. The Aquarium creates
saltwater using a special mix that includes not only salt, but
also additional trace elements to create an environment that
National Marine Sanctuary, under the management of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Flower Garden Banks
is protected while still available for scientific, commercial,
recreational and educational activities. The Flower Garden Banks
is one of 13 national marine sanctuaries managed by NOAA.
of the Flower Garden Banks is critical, as it is located in
one of the most productive oil and gas fields in the world.
Sanctuary staff members have developed partnerships with other
governmental agencies, dive groups, private non-profit organizations,
the oil and gas industry, public schools and universities in
order to work together to promote conservation while still allowing
activities such as fishing and oil and gas exploration.
U.S. Coast Guard also plays a role in the health of the Flower
Garden Banks by monthly monitoring of illegal fishing activities
and anchoring vessels. They also monitor the recreational use
of the area.
the location of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
helps buffer the area from some human pressures, there are still
threats to the reef that must be managed. These threats include
damage caused by anchoring, impacts from fishing, potential
water quality decline and impacts from the oil and gas industries.
By maintaining positive working relationships with other organizations,
the Sanctuary is efficiently managed and regulated.
Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the
natural world. Admission is $17.95 per adult and $9.50 per child,
ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation
programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium.
Ticket prices are $7.95 per adult and $5.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX
combo tickets are $21.95 for adults and $12.50 for children.
Advance tickets may be purchased online at www.tnaqua.org or
by phone at 1-800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks
of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization.
Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium
and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members
enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to
Downloadable images: http://www.tnaqua.org/Newsroom/Photo_library.asp