On a beautiful calm sunny morning, I rolled off the boat’s gunwale, and slowly sank to the reef beside the mooring. I was at Hammerhead Hill, one of my favourite dive sites off Grand Cayman’s famous north wall. Diving with me were Mark Danziger and Mariasol Hernandez, and we made our way slowly to the west along the edge of the drop.
Always seeking the ultimate queen angelfish shot I am constantly on the watch for this angelfish, and I spotted one at the entrance to a coral tunnel system, and slowly finned in that direction. The light on the background surface bothered me; something was strange. Then I realised it was the tail of a huge fish. One more kick, the queen angel was forgotten and I was looking at the back half of goliath grouper.
The giant grouper turned slowly to face me, as I took a shot, my heart racing. I turned to signal Mariasol and Mark, with the fish holding its position, the sunlight from above dappling on its mottled brown skin. I fired off a few more wide angle shots, and then backed away as Mariasol got in the action.
The 200 pound fish tolerated our presence for a few more precious seconds before giving us the famous goliath boom and heading off down the wall. My first Cayman goliath grouper, I was elated! The rapid contraction of their swim bladder will emit a loud drumming sound warning us to keep our distance.
Being a top reef predator, the goliath grouper can consume anything it wants to. Common food items include other reef fish, juvenile sea turtles, octopus, squid, stingrays, lobster and crabs. They can suck down any prey item that will fit into their cavernous mouth.
It was once widespread, but it is not a common fish and there have been infrequent encounters in the Cayman Islands. Typically they are found here in some of the wrecks and in coral tunnels at the edge of the wall and often associate with the schools of silversides when they invade a portion of the reef for safety. Juvenile goliath grouper may have reached the Cayman Islands through larval drift from Cuba and Jamaica.
However, because of the small geographic size and absence of fresh water these islands lack the shallow, brackish water habitat suitable for goliath grouper development, so the local population remains small.
Once called the jewfish, its name was changed to goliath grouper in 2001 by the American Fisheries Society. This species is the largest of all bony fish that inhabit coastal waters and tropical reef ecosystems and can reach 800 pounds. It is a slow growing, long lived animal, and as with all long lived marine species, such as sharks, turtles and whales, they are incapable of tolerating rapid rates of extraction. Additionally spawning, as seen in Florida, takes place in large aggregations at the same place and time each year, in June to October but particularly around the full moon in July and August. The same spawning aggregations are seen in other grouper species, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation.
Juveniles are found in Florida in mangrove channels, and brackish lagoons with a lot of structure to hide from predators such as other groupers, sharks and barracuda. They mature at four to six years old, and as with other grouper species it is considered all goliath groupers begin as females, become hermaphrodites and later change to males as they get older.
Throughout its range the goliath grouper became an easy target for anglers and spear-fishermen because of its affinity for shallow water and its inquisitive nature. I remember confronting one of these giants as a teenager growing up in Jamaica, and killing it with a spear, because the flesh was very tasty.
This story has been repeated thousands of times, to the point where a harvest ban was placed on the species in the US in 1990 by the World Conservation Union. In 1993, the species was protected throughout the Caribbean. In the southern USA, the species has made a good recovery since then, emphasising the resilience of marine species once they are afforded the necessary protection.
The same saga has been repeated with the Nassau grouper, and scientists are hoping for a full recovery of the species in the next decade in the Cayman Islands. Most other large grouper species are overfished throughout their range in the southern USA and Caribbean and are deserving of complete protection from harvesting until stocks rebound.
Because the protection of the goliath grouper has worked well, the best opportunity to see and photograph a goliath grouper would be in Florida, where encounters occur daily. Here in the Cayman Islands the best opportunities are found near the shallow wrecks, and in the vicinity of aggregations of silversides associated with coral caves and tunnels.
Goliath groupers are secretive animals and will stay near a safe location for days and weeks at time. However Mariasol, Mark and I were lucky that day to have such a wonderful close encounter. Had I not been so keen on shooting the angelfish, I would have finned right by the tunnel without giving it a second look.
It is our collective responsibility to conserve all marine creatures and maintain the biodiversity of our planet.