The largest of all groupers, the goliath, Epinephelus itajara, can reach eight feet in length and 1,000 pounds, placing it at the top of the food chain.
Goliaths are found on coral reefs and in estuaries, with a particular affinity for wrecks and structures where they become longtime residents. This predictability of habitat, coupled with their general fearlessness, has made them easy targets for trophy hunting spearfisherman, to the point that populations reached commercial extinction in the late ’80s.
Conservation efforts have resulted in a tremendous rebound of numbers in Florida, though they remain very scarce in Cayman. People can dive for many years without ever seeing one.
Many years ago, while leading a group of divers on Ghost Mountain, I found the most enormous goliath I had ever seen in a cavern 120 feet down. It begrudgingly lumbered away and swam into the open blue water and I picked up my pace to swim alongside the monster.
This beauty was over seven feet long and probably over 600 pounds. I was stoked! That is, until I saw an instant change in its eye – a look of indifference that switched to ‘playtime-is-over’.
Uh, oh. These fish feed on meals like rays and sharks by creating a tremendous suction to swallow their prey. Stories of people being swallowed came to mind.
Suddenly, the beast flared its operculum and fins, and with an arched back, it circled (identical to what shark experts call ‘antagonistic behavior’) before coming in for the kill.
Instinctively, I stretched out legs and arms to get as big as possible. The next moment, I got blasted with a swim bladder-assisted sonic boom that I felt in my internal organs.
I was very fortunate to get off with just a warning. The evil eye switched back to ‘whatever’ mode, and she turned back to the cave to resume napping.
Tom Byrnes is the owner/operator of Cayman Marine Lab. He acquired his Coast Guard Captain’s Licence when he was a teenager and worked as a commercial fisherman in his youth. He got his first diving certificate in 1974 with the YMCA. He has worked in the local dive industry for more than 35 years and has a PhD in marine biology.