by Stephen R. Gittings
. . .Continued from Part 2
The remote location of the banks has left them relatively undisturbed by human activities. It also appears that protective regulations imposed by MMS, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and others, combined with voluntary attempts by the oil industry and the recreational dive community to operate in an environmentally friendly manner have minimized potential impacts on the banks' fragile resources. For example, charter boat operators voluntarily prohibited spearfishing and souvenir collecting prior to the designation of the marine sanctuary, and oil companies operating near the Flower Gardens voluntarily report even minor spills to NOAA.
The reefs see over 2000 recreational divers each year. With this level of visitation, the banks are slowly giving up their secrets-and focusing our attention on important questions. Each winter the reefs witness reunions of enormous hammerhead shark schools. Whale sharks, which grow to sixty feet in length, can be abundant one year but absent the next. Manta rays can be seen year round, an attraction claimed by very few places in the world. We do not know whether the rays are residents, transient wanderers, or repeat visitors. In the summer, divers can see newborn mantas, but seldom the adults, whose whereabouts remain unknown during that season. Adults, some over fifteen feet across, seem to be winter inhabitants. Like rays, the habits and migrations of sea turtles are poorly understood. Studies of these species' life histories have been possible only recently, largely because of the involvement of recreational observers.
Updated December 20, 1995