Page 38 - May2017

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“At a time when coral reefs
around the world are in major
decline, some at only 10 percent
of what they once were, the coral
reefs of Flower Garden Banks
National Marine Sanctuary are
healthy and thriving. We know
this from monitoring efforts that
started at East and West Flower
Garden Banks in the 1970s and
continue to this day,” Drinnen says.
“With over 50 percent coral cover,
our reefs contain more than double
the amount of reef-building coral
as the next healthiest reefs in the
Caribbean. This amount has been
consistent since monitoring efforts
began; this is likely due to the
isolated nature of our reefs,” she
explains. Since the reefs are so far offshore, they
are not subject to the constant run-off from land or
visitation from large numbers of divers, snorkelers,
and anglers.
“That’s not to say they aren’t impacted at all,
but their remote location has been a benefit. This
means the sanctuary shows us what healthy reefs
should look like everywhere, and can be used to
help us gauge progress in reef recovery efforts in
other places.”
Drinnen says the most breathtaking sight in the
sanctuary are manta rays swooping and swimming
across the reef. “They are the most graceful
creatures and so magnificent to see in person. My
very first dive at the Flower Garden Banks included
a close encounter with two manta rays immediately
upon reaching the reef,” she remembers.
“From that moment on, I was sold on this
wonderful place. Since then, I’ve had one swim so
close that the tip of its fin was an inch in front of my
mask, and seen another that was so big my arm span
only equaled one wing. Every encounter with manta
rays is magic.”
This magical experience is open to the diving public,
but even non-divers can experience it thanks to
the recently debuted Virtual Dive Gallery of Flower
Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. V
 technology gives people a chance to experience
the beauty of the sanctuary without ever getting wet—
in fact, they do not even have to leave home.
Virtually a Team Effort
In 2014, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
teamed up with Underwater Earth and various
sponsors to conduct some training and to collect
360-degree imagery in Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary. Emma Hickerson is the sanctuary’s full-
time research coordinator who has coordinated or
participated in more than 150 research missions in
her field.
“I participated in that training, and soon afterwards, was able to
take a system out to the Flower Garden Banks to collect our first
360-degree imagery, a couple of which are featured in our gallery,”
she says. “I really only had a handful of very short dives in pretty
challenging conditions—low visibility, strong currents—but I was
thrilled with the results.”
Two years later, Hickerson had another opportunity to take the
equipment back out with the main goal of collecting imagery to
raise awareness of the issue of climate change and the ongoing
coral bleaching event.
“I was able to collect several images during that mission, and
even got lucky with an image that can be used to discuss the
invasive species, Pacific lionfish. We currently have five interactive
images from Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. As I
collect more, we will keep adding.”
The virtual dives are not videos, but still images stitched together
with specialized software to create a full, interactive, 360-degree
experience, says Hickerson, who has logged more than 1,200 scuba
dives around the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean since 1997. On
March 29, 2017, she was inducted into theWomen Divers Hall of Fame.
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MAY 2017
Photo of large manta by Kristen Bailey