LPB’s ‘Window in the Waves’ reveals coral reefs of Gulf of Mexico

‘The first time Todd Richard dove into the Flower Garden Banks, a big manta ray swam right by.

“I said, ‘Oh man, this is cool. I’ve never seen this happen,’” the Baton Rouge videographer recalled.

The more Richard explored and researched this National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, the more he realized there was a visual story there he wanted to tell.

A year and a half later, in cooperation with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, the 30-minute documentary, “Window in the Waves: The Flower Garden Banks,” will debut.

The Flower Gardens, some of the healthiest and most majestic underwater coral reefs in the world, are at the same time the least known. That intrigued Richard.

“I dove it a few more times and realized it’s a really cool place. I had been diving the (Florida) Keys, the Florida Panhandle, the platforms off Louisiana’s coast,” he said. “This was something a little different.”

The reason these reefs may not be as familiar to most as the Great Barrier Reefs, for example, probably lies in their remoteness. The area is 115 miles off the Louisiana-Texas border and that translates into an 8½-hour boat ride one way.

“To go out there and visit, you almost have to plan it like an expedition, a two- to three-day event,” Richard said, adding that only about 2,500 divers make the trek to the Flower Gardens each year. In comparison, the Great Barrier Reef off Australia recorded 1.9 million visitors in 2012, according to GBR Marine Park Authority figures.

Although visitors can access the Flower Gardens from southwest Louisiana, it’s a longer ride, so most launch from Galveston or Freeport, Texas.

“You think of the Gulf of Mexico as muddy, but when you go 50, 60, 70 miles offshore, it turns blue,” Richard said.

A Caribbean kind of blue.

Still further out, the magic unfolds.

Fifty-six square miles of 23 types and varied colors of coral encompass the three sections of the reef — East Bank, West Bank and Stetson. The sections are not connected, with the east and west banks lying 11-12 miles apart, and Stetson about 30 miles northwest from there.

Dive down to the reef’s cap, about 60 feet below the surface, and visitors can watch the sea life glide past : Manta rays, whale sharks, barracuda, tropical fish in numbers comparable to the Caribbean, lobsters, gobies, amberjacks, groupers, blennies, hammerhead sharks.

“The hammerheads have the tendency to school around the Flower Gardens this time of year,” Richard said. “In the summer, there are more manta rays. Some of the time they’re friendly and curious, sometimes not so friendly, they just swim by, other times they check you out.”

The Flower Garden’s 50-60 percent coral coverage, as opposed to 15 percent in the Florida Keys, is rather phenomenal, experts agree.

The way the reef continues to flourish can be attributed to its regulation by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the remoteness of the reef itself.

Toxins traveling down the Mississippi and into the Gulf are well-diluted by the time they reach the Flower Gardens.

An annual phenomenon way out there in the Gulf ­— one that clocks can be set by — is the spawning of the coral seven to 10 days following the August full moon, at 9:15 p.m.

“Scientists kind of rate it as one of the more prolific coral spawns in the world,” Richard said. “The Great Barrier Reef is more spread out. At the Flower Gardens it’s more concentrated so when it happens, everybody references it as an upside-down snowstorm. The coral release eggs and gametes from the coral heads, and then they float to surface. That’s a pretty dramatic thing to watch.”

Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, describes it more poetically in the documentary.

“Minute little packages of hope, if you will, for the next generations of corals. It’s become a symbol, a microcosm, of doing something right for the Gulf as a whole.”

The Flower Gardens, meanwhile, are said to have gotten their name from fishermen at the turn of the 20th century.

“They would go out there and catch bits of coral and sponge on their hooks and when they’d bring it to the surface, the pieces that they brought up kind of looked like flowers,” Richard said.

The documentary is told from the perspective of Houston area diver Penny Hammer, who Richard met at the Flower Gardens.

“I thought showing that, people can connect with her, in the environment, plus having her in there gives size to the coral and the animals. It’s nice to have a human element in a wild and open place such as the flower gardens,” he said.

Richard and Shannon Fontenot, who works for Richard’s Baton Rouge-based Synergy Productions, did sound and editing for the project, while Vickie Gunnels Richard wrote the script, and Sarah Powell was the animator.

Richard said several of his diver friends worked on the production aspect at the reef.