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David and the Little Goliath Grouper

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Atlantic goliath groupers gathered off the Florida shore.

Florida is a convention destination, but its best, most wildly interesting convention is hidden beneath the surface just offshore. Within sight of the high-rise condos, shopping malls, and Denny’s restaurants is an immense biological pulse of life. Here, scores of 600-pound Atlantic goliath groupers leave their normally solitary existence to mate and spawn on the shipwrecks, ledges, and structures off of Jupiter, West Palm Beach, and Boynton Beach—as well as off the west coast of Florida—from mid-August into October.

These slow-growing, docile giants spend the first five years of their lives in Florida’s mangroves and shallow waters, vulnerable to unexpected cold weather episodes. Protected from harvest since 1990, the goliaths are slowly rebuilding their numbers, fighting their way back from the brink of oblivion. As fisherman lobby to re-open the fishery, they are placed at the center of a contentious battle between conservation and harvest.

Diving with these creatures is a world-class experience.

Watch a video of David swimming with goliath groupers

My partner, Jennifer Hayes, and I set up a remote camera on the seabed to capture the behavior of these lumbering giants. We swam our cameras and a large mesh gear bag one hundred feet down to the sand in front of the bow of the MV Castor, an artificial reef shipwreck near Boynton Beach. A small goliath (weighing a mere 150 pounds) swam down from the bow of the wreck and hovered closely as we extracted the gear from the yellow bag. The little giant inspected each piece slowly and carefully as I set it down in the sand. The goliath was a shadow on my shoulder, following my every move and looking on as I set up the tripod.

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I set the camera timer to take a picture every 5 seconds over the next few hours to capture goliath behavior. I adjusted angle and focus and started the time lapse. The “CLICK – CLICK – CLICK – CLICK” of the camera shutter was loud across the sand. The little goliath, detecting the noise, swam to the camera and rolled side to side as it listened, mesmerized by the sound and its reflection in the glass dome. The little guy blocked the view of the camera but we were certain he would swim away to do other “goliath” things.

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When we returned to the remote setup 3 hours later, the little goliath was exactly where we left him, inches from the camera, staring into the lens. I had just captured 2,160 identical pictures of one vain and curious goliath.

Jennifer Hayes and David Doubilet’s photographs of goliath groupers are featured in the July issue of National Geographic.


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