Continuing protection of goliath groupers in Florida has been in the news lately, with continued protection winning out for now. Any divers visiting the state should not miss diving the goliath grouper aggregation. Each year from August to October, these immense fish — many the size of a small car — gather to spawn off the east coast of Florida. Palm Beach County has perennially been a mecca to observe goliath grouper. At times, these giant fish gather in groups of up to 100 in one specific area, most often on a wreck or sheltered reef.
Goliath groupers are the largest predatory, reef-dwelling fish species in the Caribbean, weighing as much as 660 pounds (300 kg) when fully grown. Adults can measure up to 8 feet long (2.5 m). Game fishermen in the 20th century hunted them to such extremes that the species was near extinction along the Florida coastline by the 1990s. Finally, the U.S. government stepped in to protect them. A key factor leading to their struggling numbers is that female groupers take up to eight years to become sexually mature, while males usually take six years. These modern-day aggregations off the Florida coast are a positive indication for the species. It is imperative, however, that divers continue to advocate for their protection, as allowing fisherman to take them has again come into question.
Diving the goliath grouper aggregation
Diving the goliath grouper aggregation in Florida is not easy. Those attempting to spot them in typical dive locations off the Palm Beach coast will be disappointed. Only five or six specific sites host the larger goliath aggregations — the M/V Castor wreck, MG-111 wreck, Zion Train wreck, Hole-in-the-Wall and Mizpah wreck have all seen high numbers over the last few years.
The MG-111, Zion Train and Mizpah wrecks lie at no more than 89 feet (27 m). Divers of many ability levels can enjoy the sites. The other two sites, Castor and Hole-in-the-Wall, are deeper and thus better for advanced divers. When water clarity is excellent, divers can often see the groupers in over 82 feet (25 m) of visibility.
Depending on the year, goliath grouper numbers fluctuate between the different wrecks, with some enjoy a higher concentration than others. The five mentioned sites have seen between 50 and 100 individuals in recent years. Unfortunately, during a year with colder waters divers will often miss the groupers altogether as they favor warmer waters to spawn.
Due to their sheer size, goliath groupers often intimidate divers in the water. The species is not dangerous at all, however, preferring to remain in the protection of the group. Divers who approach the fish should remain calm, not chase them, and swim slowly to avoid spooking them. Following those rules and visiting the right sites at the right time of the year means a good chance to see one of the ocean’s truly spectacular spawning events.