By guest writer Elizabeth Weinberg, social media coordinator and editor/writer, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
For more than 40 years, national marine sanctuaries have worked to protect special places in America’s ocean and Great Lakes waters, from the Hawaiian Islands to the Florida Keys, from Lake Huron to American Samoa. Backed by one of the nation’s strongest pieces of ocean conservation legislation, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the sanctuaries seek to preserve the extraordinary beauty, biodiversity, historical connections and economic productivity of our most precious underwater treasures. And — lucky for you — most of these places are accessible to recreational divers. Sanctuary waters are filled with unique ecosystems, harboring a spectacular array of plants, animals and historical artifacts, all waiting to be explored. National marine sanctuaries belong to everyone, so dive in.
In Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, a dense mat of sponges and other marine invertebrates forms a vital habitat for local fish, like black seabass. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
The lives of Gray’s Reef inhabitants are closely intertwined, like this basket star holding onto a gorgonian. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Keep a sharp eye out while diving and you might spot a spiny lobster. These crustaceans often hide in crevices during the day and feed in the open at night. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Colorful little creatures abound in Gray’s Reef, like this regal sea goddess nudibranch. The nudibranch’s name means “naked gills,” referring to the bright, feathery gills that most have on their backs. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
More than 200 species of fish visit Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. The seaweed blenny uses its long ventral fins to perch on the seafloor and on algae. It relies on camouflage to avoid predators, but if you’re lucky you might see a small head poking out and keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Don’t forget to look up — higher up in the water column, divers can spot drifting jellyfish like sea nettles. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
The rocky habitats of Gray’s Reef lie under 60 to 70 feet of water. This sandstone foundation supplies nooks and crannies, caves and bumps for invertebrates and other animals to latch onto or hide in. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
When diving in this amazing ecosystem, help protect the reef by practicing good ocean etiquette. Do not touch or remove anything from the reef, and control your buoyancy to keep from touching the live bottom. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Loggerhead sea turtles forage in sanctuary waters year-round. This threatened species uses powerful jaws to feed on hard-shelled prey. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Some species of sharks call the sanctuary home, too. Often found lying in the sand under ledges or overhangs, nurse sharks rest during the day and feed primarily during the night. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
There’s always something new to discover when you dive into the sanctuary, diving along a low-relief live-bottom reef. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA)
Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Dive into the ocean off the coast of Georgia, and you’ll find yourself in a startlingly colorful setting. Swim past sea stars clinging to vibrant orange gorgonians, lobsters nestled between scattered rock ledges and vivid sponges. Look closely and you might see a nurse shark or a loggerhead sea turtle tucked in against the ocean floor.
This is Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, a 22-square-mile area protecting a dense carpet of fan corals, sponges, barnacles, crabs, lobsters, snails, shrimp and other organisms, collectively known as a “live-bottom” reef. Gray’s Reef is home for more than 200 species of fish, including black sea bass, snappers, groupers and mackerels, and threatened loggerhead sea turtles visit the reef year-round to forage.
When diving, help protect this sanctuary by practicing good ocean etiquette. Streamline your equipment; keep a safe distance from marine animals; and do not touch or remove anything from the reef — removing even a rock or a shell can disrupt this fragile ecosystem. Anchoring is prohibited in the sanctuary; drift diving will allow you to safely explore this amazing place.
Cover image credit: Greg McFall/NOAA