The Gulf Coast is home to one of the last healthy coral reefs. It’s surrounded by oil – Grist Magazine

Extended coral polyps. Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. 2006 July 3 (by G. P. Schmahl, courtesy of NOAA CC BY 2.0 DEED Photo Library via Flickr).
Extended coral polyps. Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. 2006 July 3 (by G. P. Schmahl, courtesy of NOAA CC BY 2.0 DEED Photo Library via Flickr).

While the Gulf of Mexico is a region known for oil, it’s also home to something far less expected. Nestled among offshore oil platforms, about 150 miles from Houston, is one of the healthiest coral reefs in the world: the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

Marine researchers who have visited the Flower Garden Banks describe it with awe in their voices. “When you look out, it can be almost disorienting because there’s so much coral,” said Michelle Johnston, superintendent of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. 

As reefs around the world bleach at alarming rates, scientists are racing to study and preserve this remarkable coral reef in the unlikeliest of places. “We have these magical underwater places, [and yet they are] completely surrounded by the oil and gas industry,” Johnston said.

To understand how both can exist in such close proximity, it helps to understand the history of the region. Roughly 190 million years ago, the ocean here was drying up, leaving behind a massive plain of salt. Over the ages, that dried-up layer of salt was buried deep in the earth.  

And eventually, a new body of water — the Gulf of Mexico — formed high above it. Because salt is less dense than the surrounding rock, the layer slowly rose toward the surface, pushing the earth above it, while pulling up massive oil deposits from below. Slowly, this shift created enormous underwater mountains known as “salt domes.” Looking at a map of the Gulf of Mexico today, you can see that many of its oil drilling sites are on those same underwater mountains.

A few of these mountains rose so high that sunlight was just able to filter down through the water to reach them. And roughly 10,000 years ago, coral polyps latched onto the peaks and started to grow. Those underwater mountaintops are now the Flower Garden Banks.

Because the reef is so far from the shore, it’s been protected from many threats like overfishing and coastal pollution. And because of its depth and northern latitude, the water here is about as cold as corals can tolerate, essentially protecting the Flower Garden Banks from global warming. In the summer of 2023, for example, while other reefs throughout the Caribbean were being ravaged by heat stress and bleaching, the unique geology of Flower Gardens allowed it to fare better than the rest. 

But this same unique geology has also turned the region into a massive hub for offshore oil drilling.

“When you’re offshore diving at the Flower Gardens, you look around from the dive boat and you can see oil and gas platforms in every direction,” Johnston said. “So there’s all of this industry happening around this beautiful place…”

Grist (05-09-2024):
One of the world’s healthiest coral reefs is in an oil field

For now, the reef is thriving – how long it lasts depends on us.

Proof of Concept is a video series profiling the science and scientists behind some of the environment’s most unexpected research.

Video by: Jesse Nichols

Senior Producer: Daniel Penner

Deputy Editor: Teresa Chin

Executive Editor: Kat Bagley

Illustrator: Estelle Caswell

Sources: Michelle Johnston Kristine DeLong Amy Wagner Kelly Drinnen

Learn more about the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary:


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