Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary
By SHERRI SMITH BROWN
Soft corals, sponges and invertebrates are a natural habitat for reef and pelagic fish within Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary off the Georgia Coast. Loggerhead turtles foraging, dolphins, Right Whales, pelagic birds and fish, and a live-bottom reef that supports invertebrates, soft corals and sponges can all be seen on the Georgia Coast in the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest near shore live-bottom reefs of the southeastern United States, is one of the most popular spots off the Georgia coast for recreational fishing and diving. It is just one of 14 marine protected areas that make up the National Marine Sanctuary System, but the only natural area protected off the Georgia coast. The 17 square nautical miles (about 11,000 acres) of Gray’s Reef protects habitat that is recognized both nationally and internationally. Within the sanctuary, there are rocky ledges and flat and rippled sand plains. Gray’s Reef is not a coral reef, such as those found in the tropics. It is not built by living hard corals. Instead, it is a rock outcropping that stands above the shifting sands of the continental shelf. The wide variety of invertebrates, soft corals and sponges that the reef supports, in turn, supports a wide variety of reef and pelagic fishes, such as king mackerel. This makes Gray’s Reef a popular spot for both diving and recreational fishing.
Also growing in popularity at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is pelagic bird watching. Some of the species seen in the Sanctuary include true pelagic birds — such as shearwaters, petrels and bridled terns that spend their entire lives at sea except when they nest or are blown inshore during heavy storms — as well as seabirds like gulls and royal terns that forage at sea but return regularly to land. Loggerhead sea turtles are frequently seen resting and foraging at Gray's Reef; other sea turtle species sometimes pass through the sanctuary. Both bottlenose and spotted dolphin are seen in the Sanctuary, and it is possible that you will encounter a highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale when visiting Gray's Reef as the Sanctuary is near the only known calving ground for the whales and near an area designated as critical habitat. Located 32 kilometers (17.5 miles) off Sapelo Island between Savannah and Brunswick and 60-70 feet below the ocean surface, the sanctuary is only accessible by private boat. The Sanctuary does not run boat tours, fishing trips or dive trips. However, independent boat operators run fishing trips and dive trips to the Sanctuary. The Gray's Reef administrative offices are on the north end of Skidaway Island near Savannah on the campus of Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.