Swimming with Super Grouper

As I drift north toward the Ana Cecilia off Singer Island, Florida, I prepare my underwater camera to photograph one of my favorite fish, the Atlantic goliath grouper.

Dozens have gathered to socialize and spawn near the artificial reef. It’s late summer, and the Ana C and other South Florida wrecks are loaded with the giants, which travel from as far as 500 kilometers for their annual bacchanalia. To say the gentle monsters have an affinity for the submerged mountains of rusty metal is an understatement; they resemble little blimps as they circle the structures found up and down the Florida coast.

The fish are so docile this time of year that I can slowly swim right up and pet them as they hover, motionless, facing the current. They readily approach divers, too, sometimes even allowing them to remove hooks and fishing line. Their skin is surprisingly rough and leathery, a perfect shield to protect them from sharp corals, rocks, and metal. I’ve also learned to get their attention by gently tapping a small rock on my underwater camera housing or by digging in the sand with my hand. They always come in for a closer look.

In the scuba diving universe, pretty little fish and corals in crystal clear waters at exotic destinations first lure people into the water. But after the novelty wears off, divers go searching for the big stuff. And at a time when most dive locations have been stripped clean of large fish, the opportunity to swim with a creature reminiscent of a Volkswagen Beetle is irresistible. Goliaths are huge—one of the largest groupers—and harmless. During spawning time in August and September, divers pour off Florida’s charter boats by the hundreds, eager to interact with them.

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