One of the most amazing sights that I have seen underwater thus far is the goliath grouper.
With ‘goliath’ in its name, you can imagine this is a big fish. Full grown, goliath grouper (also known as the jewfish) can weigh as much as 800 pounds and measure more than eight feet in length. I’ve seen fairly large stingrays and sharks, both in tanks and in the ocean – and both species are really impressive. But there is something really jaw-dropping about a 500-pound, sour-faced fish.
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, Goliath grouper tend to be solitary fish, and they are territorial around places of refuge like caves and ledges – like the ones located off Jupiter Inlet called the “Tunnels.” During a dive trip to this area, our group was lucky enough to see several of the giant fish.
One fish in particular demonstrated this territorial behavior. He tried to scare us with his menacing glare as we playfully swam through the shallow rock tunnels.
I’m sure he was probably trying to tell us these were his rocks and tunnels. In fact, twice he positioned himself just outside the opposite opening of the rock overhangs, slack-jawed and challenging us with his stare. Our dive group pressed on through the tunnels, and the grouper moved aside, likely frustrated at this alien invasion into his world.
He expressed his annoyance a short time later by quickly swimming away while eliciting a deep, rhythmic booming sound like a bass drum. It could not only be distinctly heard, but felt.
“We call it ‘barking,’” said Divemaster Maria Rintone. “They go, ‘boom!’ ‘boom!’ and they smack their gills, and you can actually feel the vibration.”
When the goliath grouper ‘barks,’ it is contracting its swim bladder, said Rintone. The barking is meant to warn intruders or to locate other goliath grouper. The sound travels a long distance underwater. The goliath grouper’s “bark” is truly worse than its bite, since it’s essentially a gentle giant.
As the largest grouper in the western Atlantic, the goliath grouper was once a prized catch (and photo opportunity) for Florida fishermen of previous decades. However, they have been a protected species since 1990, at which point they were so overfished, they were on the brink of extinction.
According to the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), goliath grouper are vulnerable to overfishing because of their slow growth and long life span. It takes up to eight years for a goliath grouper to become sexually mature. Happily, the goliath grouper has been making a comeback, although groups like ORCA and others argue that their numbers indicate they still need protection and that they could possibly adapt to becoming a predator of the dreaded lionfish.
If you’re a diver, Florida’s Southeast coast is a great place to encounter goliath grouper. Contact the Jupiter Dive Center in Jupiter Inlet or other dive shops farther to the south to find out about the best spots to see the goliath grouper. They are an ocean treasure and an amazing sight.
Photo credits: Jupiter Dive Center, Jay Janesko
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