It is pretty ironic that a celestial event named after a freshwater fish is responsible for a saltwater phenomenon unlike any other in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean.
About one week after the so-called “Sturgeon Moon” in August, corals within the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas and Louisiana begin to spawn.
This event marks one of the most spectacular spawning bonanzas in the Western Hemisphere due to the high density of corals breeding through a process of broadcast spawning.
Scientists don’t fully understand why the full moon in August triggers these tiny animals to release packets of reproductive materials all at the same time. The corals are synced to create an “underwater snowstorm” each year.
This year a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, will be on-site in the Gulf to live stream the corals’ spawn, and the Aquarium will be displaying this footage in the River Journey Auditorium so the public can witness the phenomenon in real-time.
“We’re very excited to be an educational partner with the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration,” says Dr. Brooke Gorman, the Tennessee Aquarium’s director of science education. “Our Secret Reef exhibit models the Flower Garden Banks, so our guests have a lot of opportunities to learn about this special place, year round.”
Thanks to this partnership, Aquarium guests will be able to witness the natural processes that built up the Flower Garden Banks spectacular underwater ecosystem via a camera located more than 100 feet below the surface.
Beginning Wednesday, Aug. 14, an ROV named “Yogi” will embark on a three-week expedition to explore the Flower Garden Banks. Traveling below the sunlit zone to depths of nearly 500 feet, Yogi will beam real-time discoveries to viewers via the Internet to audiences around the world, including Aquarium guests in Chattanooga.
This adventure will comprise three distinct legs. The first, focused on coral connectivity, biodiversity and processes that drive coral reef communities, will take place Aug. 14-18 in the northwest Gulf of Mexico. The next, Aug. 21-25, will take place entirely within the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, where viewers will witness the coral spawn from start to finish.
“We’ll have Yogi’s live feed available for guests each day,” Dr. Gorman said. “But the highlight will be during the night of Aug. 22, when we will offer some students from area schools a special Sleep in the Deep program. The Aquarium was chosen as one of only three education partners to talk with the scientists operating Yogi as the coral spawn peaks. It’s a tremendously exciting opportunity.”
The final leg of the expedition, Aug. 28–Sept. 1, will examine black corals around the periphery of the Sanctuary. The researchers will be searching for any new black coral species while assessing the overall abundance and health of known black corals.
Beyond letting students observe processes and places that go largely unseen by those outside the world of academia, this stream could help jumpstart students’ burgeoning interest in science, technology, engineering or math, Dr. Gorman said.
“Opportunities like this can get kids excited and perhaps lead to some of them pursuing a career in a STEM-related field,” she said. “Hopefully, our guests spend a little more time exploring our Secret Reef exhibit after seeing this live feed.”