Holy Crap, You Can Dive With Monster-Sized Fish in Florida Right Now

Fish the size of golf carts are gathering off Palm Beach County.

Courtesy of Daniel Prairie
Courtesy of Daniel Prairie

I usually have my eye on far-off horizons when it comes to scuba diving adventures -- to places like the remote Tuamotu Atolls of French Polynesia that teem with sharks, or the heart of the coral triangle in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat. 

But if there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that epic adventures also await in our own back yards. And the chance to dive with fish that tip the 400-pound mark (sometimes even twice that) had me beelining it for Palm Beach County in Florida earlier this month.

Each year off the coast of Jupiter, Florida, between late July and early October, hundreds of grouper -- some the size of golf carts, and up to 10 feet long -- show up to sow their wild oats in a spawning event that’s been likened to an underwater orgy. The official name? The Atlantic Goliath Grouper aggregation. The best time to see it? Right now. 

“Is everyone ready?” asked our dive master, Kayla Kohutko, as she pulled on her mask. I pulled the seasick card to get to the front of the line of divers on the bobbing boat, the Diveocean.

At one point, a grouper the size of a refrigerator hurried under me.

We were drifting above the MG-111, the largely unrecognizable remains of an old Mississippi river barge that lies about 65 feet underwater. It’s a favorite spot for the grouper to gather for, ya know, romance. I did a giant stride off the boat with my BCD emptied of air and let my own weight pull me gently down, down, down through glacier-blue water as warm as a bathtub. 

Suddenly, there they were: a band of eight enormous fish that appeared to be posing like some indie rock group on an album cover, staggered in style and hovering a few feet off the seabed.

I’ve dived with Napoleon wrasse as big as gas grills in Palau, and I’ve seen plenty of fish around the Florida Keys amply sized for the dinner plate. But these Goliaths are in another league entirely. I watched as they waved their mottled olive-green bodies in the current and watched me with their oversized frowns and comically small eyes.

Courtesy of Daniel Prairie

Catching the fish in the actual act of spawning is extremely rare. They do the deed right around the new moon, usually at night or in the early morning hours, and it’s apparently a fast and furious affair. That said, there’s plenty of fishy foreplay on the ocean’s floor to observe.

At one point, a grouper the size of a refrigerator hurried under me and shimmied into a nook in the wreck. Then I heard it: an underwater boom so strong it reverberated underwater through my body. Known as the grouper’s “bark,” the fish make these aggressive sounds with a muscle in their swim bladders as a form of communication during the spawning event. Call it the language of love.

The rest of our dive was accompanied by this occasional sonic boom soundtrack. Sometimes, low and deep in the distance, it sounded like the heartbeat of the ocean itself.

At one point I caught sight of a sleeping nurse shark, easily eight feet long, tucked away under an outcropping of reef. I swam atop the wreck to fin through clouds of tropical fish and enjoy the neutral buoyancy that feels, more than ever these days, like therapy. Like an apparition, the looming shadows of 10 Goliaths appeared at the end of the wreck, giving me the stare-down.

Somewhere beyond the grouper, out in the blue, the glint of a patrolling reef shark registered on my radar -- exciting in itself, but the big fish had long ago stolen the show.

If you go:

DIVE: Scuba Works and Jupiter Dive Center are among several shops that run regular boat trips for two-tank dives on the MG-111 wreck, the ledge reef system, and other sites where the Goliaths are known to gather.

DINE: Goliath grouper have been a federally protected species since 1990 and also have high levels of mercury in their bodies, so you won’t find them on local menus. But you can try a more abundant reef species for lunch right where you step off the dive boat at the waterfront Square Grouper Tiki Bar, which serves up grouper tacos and grouper fish and chips with views of the Jupiter lighthouse.

STAY: Check into the brand new downtown West Palm Beach property, The Ben, with a gorgeous rooftop pool and a restaurant, Spruzzo, with views over the Intracoastal Waterway.

A freelance travel writer since 2001 when she quit her desk job in Florida to travel the world and live in Australia and New Zealand, Terry Ward has written for such publications as The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, and Scuba Diving Magazine.