Chris Parsons | Florida Goliath Grouper
The feeling is unmistakable – a boom felt in the chest. Paradoxically, it is loud but rumbles at such a low frequency that it is not always easy to hear. The “bark” of the Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara) is this fish’s way of letting you know that you have invaded its personal space.
It might be a bit startling, but it is not dangerous. The Goliath might be an exceptionally large fish, but it is really a big, harmless underwater puppy dog. Don’t corner them, and don’t stick your hand near its large mouth, and you should have no problems other than getting barked at.
Each year starting in late summer and continuing into fall, Goliath Grouper aggregate for the purpose of spawning. Near West Palm Beach, Florida, these large fish seem to prefer to gather in the structure of some of the larger shipwrecks in the area. It is not uncommon to find 10 or 15 Goliaths on a single wreck, with larger aggregation of as many as 100 possible.
Goliaths are an interesting and challenging photographic subject. Part of the challenge in Palm Beach is the depth; the shipwrecks they prefer to haunt tend to be at 25-30 meters or deeper. That limits the time you can spend with them, which is important to note because it can take time to get them comfortable with a diver and a camera approaching them closely enough to get a good shot.
Their size can be difficult to convey in some shots, especially if there is not something in the frame that the viewer can compare with. Because of their size, lighting can be a challenge, too. A typical strobe that nicely lights the face will be less effective at the pectoral fins and pretty much useless for the tail of a large grouper. At these depths, it is always a challenge to balance the ambient and strobe lighting in a way that looks pleasing but natural.
Lens selection is also a consideration when shooting Goliaths. Generally, I prefer rectilinear lenses for large subjects like sharks to minimize distortion when compared to a fisheye lens. With Goliaths though, the exaggeration can sometimes help show the user the large size of the subject, and some of my favorite Goliath shots were made with the Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens.
Pictures can be deceiving, and photos of these large aggregations can lead people to believe that all is well with the Goliath Grouper, but that is not the case. Because the spawning behavior pulls a normally dispersed population from hundreds of miles to aggregate in a few small areas, taking advantage of this poorly-timed opportunity to hunt and kill the grouper during their mating season will ensure the eradication of the species. This is still a species that needs our protection.
It is well-documented in marine biology that fishing can easily decimate a species when the fishing targets spawning areas. Despite the science, despite the fact that Goliaths are listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Version 2017-2, the State of Florida is actively considering re-opening fishing of Goliaths. It would be a tragedy to wipe out the Goliath population just as it is starting to show signs of recovery.