On the first two days of the cruise, Josh and Michael spent their mornings SCUBA diving on both the East and West Flower Garden Banks with divers Emma Hickerson, John Embesi, and Ryan Eckert from the National Marine Sanctuary office. We dove on the relatively shallow coral cap at 70ft to collect additional Montastraea cavernosa and Agaricia sp. to characterize skeletal morphology, zooxanthellae assemblages, and population genetics of the corals. Josh described the coral caps accurately as epic. Coral cover is 50-90%, comprised mostly of massive Orbicella, Montastraea, Siderastrea, Colpophyllia, Pseudodiploria, and Stephanocoenia species. Some colonies are encrusting and flattened on the reef substrate, but most form huge mounds and boulders between 4-10ft in height. This extensive ecosystem provides habitat for commercially important snapper and grouper as well as large pelagic species like whale sharks, turtles, and sharks. The Flower Gardens are truly a phenomenal reef system, and certainly worth the long haul more than 100 miles offshore.
With a total of 30 or more samples from each bank, Michael will be able to resolve population genetic structure within FGB and areas of the Caribbean. He and Samantha Johnston will also use these samples to analyze differences in the corals’ skeletal structure. Jennifer aided in sample collection and processing. She will use the zooxanthellae isolated from these samples to characterize and compare algal symbiont communities vertically within mesophotic communities and horizontally with samples collected at various locations throughout the Caribbean.