Our adventure began at the West Palm Beach Marina, located on Singer Island. The dive club is called Calypso Divers and we were greeted by our friendly captain, Damien, and his diving guide Guillermo. Stuck at the dock between an armada of fishing boats was our little dive boat - nothing luxurious but everything was in its place and everything worked.
On the way out to our first dive site, Guillermo told us the story of these giant groupers that we were there to see… these groupers who were almost fished to extinction.
Until 1960, goliath groupers were present along the Florida coast. You just had to put your head underwater to see them - hidden in the shade of the pontoons, near the beaches and on the reefs. Due to both their large size and their sedentary nature, spear fishermen wreaked havoc on this easy to harpoon prey. Able to reach nearly 300 kilos and more than 2.5 metres long, goliath groupers are the largest predatory, reef fish in the Tropical Atlantic and the Caribbean. They have been found on both side of the tropical Atlantic, through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and as far south as Brazil.
But now in most places, these big fish are rare or non-existent. But not so in the waters of Palm Beach County where the law has protected these beautiful creatures. Anytime of the year it is quite common to see at least one or two of these big animals lurking on a wreck or within an undercut on a ledge.
And late into the summer season, a show takes places off the coast of Palm Beach County that divers will not experience anywhere else in the world - congregations of 100 plus mammoth size groupers massed together on a particular handful of wreck sites.
Typically first of August marks the beginning of Goliath Grouper spawning season. And like the fish, it is a goliath event. The area's resident population of goliaths are joined by others from as far as 300 miles away. Some of the spawning fish that end up in Palm Beach County waters begin their journey from considerable distances, and start moving as early as mid July. By August, the bulk of the migrating fish have arrived, swelling the aggregation sites from a handful to a couple of hundreds.
These gatherings are the start of a two-month romance that takes place at a few key sites between Jupiter and Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County. As the seabed is mostly sandy, many scuttled wrecks serve as aggregation sites and shelter during the breeding season. Originally, these wrecks were sunk for local fishermen. They were traps to attract and fix fish, offering fishermen an easy to find fishing post. But these wrecks have also proved to be shelters for the giant groupers. And large, well-preserved wrecks like the Anna Cecilia, seem to be prized by the goliaths.
Seeing an entire spawning aggregation when underwater visibly is good (60-100 feet), is a spectacle that defies words. The actual mating ritual for goliaths is still somewhat of a mystery. It has been determined that spawning takes place shortly after sunset during a six to seven night period centered on the new moon cycles of August and September. Males mix their sperm with the ovum clouds of females and the fertilized eggs floats with the currents. Most of the eggs are devoured, but a few will give birth to larvae and then goliath babies, which will grow and return in turn to the wrecks of Florida.
In 1994, the goliath grouper was determined to be critically endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Due to relentless and excessive fishing pressure, the goliath species sits on the edge of being wiped out. For generations, fishermen severely depleted goliath stocks, killing immature fish along with the gargantuan adults for food, “hero” photographs and egos.
The tide began to turn for the goliath grouper in 1990 when Florida enacted laws that completely protected them. Since 1993, harvest and possession of a goliath grouper is prohibited off Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Currently, Florida is the only region where stocks have returned from a state of collapse. This makes Florida's spawning critically important to the survival of the species. It’s the only place in the world where goliath groupers are now found in significant numbers. The comeback of this impressive fish demonstrates nature’s resilience and shows that we can turn things around.
A 20 minutes boat ride from the West Palm Beach Marina is a series of 4 wrecks, 165 feet apart called the Mizpah wrecks. They all sit in about 90 feet of water on a sand bed and are meant to be done in a single drift dive, which is quite easy when the current is running. The southern most wreck, and the first wreck of the drift dive, is The Anna Cecilia, a 200 foot cargo ship that was sunk for divers in 2016.
As we neared the dive site of the Mizpah wrecks, Damien informed us that the current should be strong and that we all need to stick together. We decided to jump in upstream of the first wreck and drift into it. As we swam in the blue, the Anna Cecila’s ghostly silhouette appeared out of obscurity. The ship was impressively: vertical, upright and intact and at the bow we got our first glimpse of the goliath groupers. It was a relatively small group of 20 or 30 groupers, almost stationary at the bow of the boat with their noses facing into the current, glued together with their tails moving just a tad - enough to keep them in place. Some were white, some black, some gray and the largest was more than two meters long. I have never seen goliaths so close. They allowed us to approach and didn’t seem to fear our presence. What an impressive site!
We were mesmerized and could have stayed for hours but after ten minutes or so, our group decided to move on to the second of the Mizpah wrecks. The second wreck, called The Mizpah, is a larger wreck. Sunk in 1968 as an artificial reef, this 300 foot vessel is quite broken up. Only a couple of suspicious groupers were on the wreck and they quickly disappeared as soon as we approached. It seems that this older wreck was of less interest to the goliath groupers than the Anna Cecilia. Perhaps now that it is quite flat, it offers less shelter to the fish.
Our first dive on these two wrecks was reassuring as the groupers were gathering. And we were lucky because the diving conditions were good and in Florida that is not always the case. The water was cold but the visibility was really quite good. The plan was to return to the same dive site for the next few days and try our luck again.
Day 2 we returned to the Anna Cecilia. The groupers were still there but in greater numbers than the day before: about fifty of them. Unfortunately the current was much stronger and it hindered our observation and Cathy’s photography. To be able to stay close to the groupers at the bow, Cathy had to wrap her legs around the railing of the ship and hold on, riding the wreck like a horse. After 30 minutes in the company of these magnificent creatures, it was time to leave the Anna Cecilia and drift off into the current.
Back on board, the captain explained that the closer we get to the full moon, the stronger the tidal current will be, but the number of groupers will increase as well. “My friends,” concludes Damien, “I think you'd better come back tomorrow”.
The next day we returned once again to test our lucky stars. The captain agreed to drop us off alone on the Anna Cecilia and to put the other divers on the Mizpah wreck. Good deal! And, indeed, on this third day we hit the mega jackpot!
Alone on the Anna Cecilia, we discovered a group of goliaths so vast, that they seems to stretch to infinity into the blue. There were hundreds of individuals - male and female, dancing together, rubbing and stroking each other with no regard to our presence. A few lay on the sand, in trenches that they had dug, like birds in a nest. While the groupers gave the impression of swimming effortlessly, for us it was an exhausting struggle against the current to move forward towards the head of the group. But you couldn’t have asked for better conditions for approaching and observing these giants, in the intimacy of their sex life. It will be a dive that we will remember for the rest of our lives.