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The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary:
inspiration for the Tennessee Aquarium’s Secret Reef exhibit

CHATTANOOGA, 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.

Typically, 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.

“The 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.

“The 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.”

For 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.

Beneath 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 300 feet.

This 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 Marine Sanctuary.

In the 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.

A variety 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.

The 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.

Unlike 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 since 1972.

Conditions 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 mimics saltwater.

As a 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.

Management 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.

The 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.

Although 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.

The 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 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 join.

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