The Sublime Sanctuary Just off the Coast

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Off the coast of Savannah, Gray’s Reef is protected — but is still ours to explore

Written by JESSICA LEIGH LEBOS
Photography courtesy GRAY’S REEF NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on June 7, 2024.

IF YOU SAILED 20 MILES straight east off of Sapelo Island and gazed around the horizon, you would see nothing but a seamless view of water and sky. Sixty feet below the surface, however, there’s quite a party going on: A bottom landscape of rocky outcroppings and sandy sediment has played host to a dazzling array of marine flora, fish and the occasional massive sea turtle for more than 2 million years. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary covers 22 square miles of the ocean floor reaching all the way to the Continental Shelf, one of the largest off the Eastern seaboard. But few Savannahians know of its riches.

Sea bass at Gray's reef near Savannah
Black sea bass

Discovered in 1961 by University of Georgia marine biologist Milton “Sam” Gray, this busy spot was designated a National Marine Sanctuary in 1981 by President Jimmy Carter, protecting it from commercial fishing, oil drilling and other degrading exploits. Since then, it has become a shining example of oceanic conservation and a vital research hub for marine science.

That doesn’t mean Gray’s Reef is off-limits to everyone but scientists. Its managing body, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), permits recreational activity in the area, giving scuba divers the opportunity to catch a glimpse of sea squirts, tubeworms and other creatures in their natural habitat. Even if you opt to stay dry in your boat, you can still interact with the reef, casting out a line for the 200 species of fish that feed on the cornucopia of plankton life (the whiting and mackerel catches are reportedly outstanding).

Right whale at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Right whale and calf

Come late fall, you might even spot a North Atlantic right whale and its young circling one of the only known calving grounds in the world for the species, though you’re required to stay at least 500 feet away from these protected creatures. Other prohibitions include anchoring on the reef, throwing anything in the ocean or damaging the bottom formation — but as long as they follow the rules, humans are encouraged to visit.

School of fish at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Diver obscured by fish
Decorator crab at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Decorator crab camouflaged with tunicates
Loggerhead turtle at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Loggerhead turtle under ledge

“We’ve found that people who use the reef respect the regulations,” says Michelle Riley, Gray’s Reef communications and outreach coordinator. “The local boating, diving and fishing communities respect what we have here.”

Stricter guidelines must be followed within the reef ’s designated research area, encompassing eight square miles in the southern third of the sanctuary — fishing and diving are prohibited and boats are not allowed to stop. 

The pristine habitat has yielded volumes of data about the living organisms of Gray’s Reef, collected by a team of scientists who make the two-and-a-half-hour commute during the year as well as an annual two-week pilgrimage that requires living aboard NOAA research vessel the Nancy Foster. During these pilgrimages, the research team makes two, sometimes three dives a day to explore and document the reef ’s diversity and overall health.

Flounder and sea stars at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Flounder and sea stars
Sea star and urchin at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Sea star hitching a ride on an urchin

Research coordinator Kim Roberson laments that 2020’S summer dive trip has been suspended due to coronavirus and the risk of keeping a crew in confined spaces, but she and her team continue to monitor sensors and collect data through cameras, tagged species and hydrophone recordings, which eavesdrop on the underwater scene.

“We have scientific equipment in the water that gives us information on a number of fronts, about what grows on the reef and how many different types of animals swim through,” explains Roberson. “The sounds of the sanctuary especially tell us so much.”

Many types of fish use sound to communicate, and the scientists overhear much conversation between barking oyster toadfish — grumpy-looking things with scraggly beards that actually grunt at each other, be it a warning or a greeting. “I don’t speak fish yet, but I’m certainly studying the language!” Roberson says with a laugh.

She also points to a recent NOAA Decades of Detection report, which determined that acoustic telemetry (measuring space through sound) reveals a pattern of movement indicating that Gray’s Reef may also be a popular stop along an important East Coast migration corridor for certain sharks and large fish species.

Oyster toadfish at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Oyster toadfish
Oyster toadfish at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Oyster toadfish on sand
Scamp grouper at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Scamp grouper

“We don’t know why, but we’re excited to find out,” says Roberson, adding that even after hundreds of dives, she’s always ready to get back to the reef and “see what mysteries are out there.”

Though Roberson embraces a “more is merrier” perspective on visitors, the fact is that underwater diving requires major equipment, which means only those with a scuba license get to see Gray’s Reef up close. Fortunately, her predecessor, Greg McFall, installed underwater cameras to capture images of this special ocean intersection, yielding intimate, stunning snapshots of its inhabitants and visitors. Many of the photos included in this article were taken by McFall, and help raise awareness of this treasured resource.

“The vast majority of people are never going to go to Gray’s Reef, so our job is to bring the reef to them,” says Riley, who works from the research office based on Skidaway Island. “The goal is to show that Savannah’s National Marine Sanctuary belongs to all Americans.”

“We’re so fortunate that Savannah was chosen as the gateway to Gray’s Reef. It could have been Brunswick or Jekyll Island, but it’s ours to share with the world,” says Riley. “We want people to know it’s there and to use it.” 

If you want to experience Gray’s Reef but prefer to do it on land, head to the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Discovery Center in downtown Savannah. Dedicated in October 2022, the discovery center features interactive exhibits, events and a gift shop with ocean- and Earth-friendly toys, gifts, and books.

Diver observing sponge at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Diver observing sponge
Diver and nurse shark at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Diver and nurse shark
Oyster toadfish at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Oyster toadfish hiding in coral
Jellyfish at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Jellyfish with shrimp
Hermit crab at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Hermit crab
Grouper at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Grouper ambushing prey
Jellyfish at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Jellyfish swims with fish
Orange finger sponge at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Orange finger sponge
Crab at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Unidentified crab species
Purple sea star at Gray's Reef near Savannah
Purple sea star