By Sarah Sekula, published in USA TODAY
JUPITER, Fla. — Since the late 1800s, Florida’s Palm Beaches have been a grand escape for travelers. With 125 miles of waterways, an abundance of chic restaurants and palatial hotels, it’s a veritable slice of seaside bliss. So much so, 7.35 million people flocked there in 2016.
A handful of those travelers, however, are vacationing in the tropical paradise for another reason entirely. And it lies just below the surface.
First, choose any good-weather day from late August through September. Then, take a boat trip off the coast of Jupiter and scuba dive your way to a series of wrecks. Here, you’ll come face to face with loads of goliath grouper, a fish that certainly lives up to its name. These behemoths of the sea can grow up to 8 feet long, roughly the length of a Smart car, and can weigh a whopping 800 pounds.
As you flipper kick your way in and around the Wreck Trek, which includes Zion Train, a 164-foot-long freighter; Esso Bonaire III, a steel tanker covered in coral; and Miss Jenny, an upside down barge, dozens of the prehistoric-looking fish welcome you.
Around this time of year, it’s a summer getaway for loads of goliath grouper looking to spawn. So many of them show up, in fact, experts say it is the largest aggregation of goliaths in the world.
And it is a sight to see.
“They understand that they’re bigger than you and most of the other marine life in the ocean, so they’re not scared and allow you to swim quite close to them,” says Jena McNeal, PADI-certified rescue diver and Palm Beach County’s artificial reef coordinator. “They act as you might think a huge fish would. They swim slowly and only swim fast when they feel cornered or threatened.”
If you do enter a goliath’s personal bubble of space, you will know immediately. Its defense mechanism comes in the form of a startling harrumph known as barking. In other words, the fish lets out a deep, booming noise from its swim bladder.
McNeal has experienced it firsthand: “On one of my favorite artificial reef sites, Walkover Reef, I came over a large pile of limestone rock, enjoying all the fish it attracts, not paying full attention to what was in front of me, and I scared a goliath who instantly started barking at me,” McNeal recalls. “It scared the air out of my lungs since I wasn’t paying attention.”
Swim with gentle giants
Don’t worry, though. Although their bark may be alarming, goliaths are anything but menacing. And in mating season, they will largely ignore you altogether. They are too busy scoping out potential mates.
“Every year I try to dive during their aggregation time and have seen over 50 stacked up together in the water column,” McNeal says. “At Warrior Reef they stack up in groups of five to 20 around concrete pillars and act as a flock of birds pointed into the current. The front fish swim in that position for a certain amount of time and then eventually move to the back and the entire group shifts forward.”
“On the Esso Bonaire is where you see the most at one time,” says Hamilton Mason with Jupiter Dive Center. “As you come into the bow of the wreck you can see two or three dozen. And then you’ll see a few more inside the wreck at the stern. It’s incredible.”
There’s no doubt that any encounter with these marine mammoths, barking or not, is a story you’ll tell over and over again. Being so close to such a large fish is, indeed, the thrill of a lifetime. The added bonus of loggerhead turtles, stingrays and brightly colored fish is just icing on the cake. (See my photos @sarahsomewhere.)
For the non-diving crowd
If snorkeling is more your style, consider the Underwater Snorkel Trail at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach. The Lagoon here is a haven for parrotfish, damselfish, arrow crabs, octopus, turtles, manatees and stingrays. It’s an underwater pathway of limestone boulders and even hammerhead shark sculptures.
Managed by the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management, it attracts newbie scuba divers testing out their scuba skills, teens toting along selfie sticks in search of the perfect underwater snapshot and families who appreciate the nearby playground and showers.
IF YOU GO:
What to know: Jupiter Dive Center ($70 per person for a two-tank dive) takes certified divers to wreck sites where goliath grouper are known to hang out. Divers should be familiar with drift diving since the current can crank up to 4 knots at a moment’s notice. To learn more about goliath grouper, sign up for specialty courses ($199) in August or September. For more information, go to jupiterdivecenter.com.
Where to stay: Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa is a 30-minute drive from Jupiter Dive Center. Recover at the spa, lunch alfresco (be on the lookout for the table-side margarita cart and the beer sommelier) or sign up for a Mango Farm Tour, where you’ll see 70 different varieties of the versatile stone fruit. Come nighttime, stroll along the beach and, chances are, you’ll see fresh turtle tracks and nesting turtles. Florida’s beaches host the largest aggregation of nesting loggerheads in the world. Just be sure to never bring lights along as they can disrupt nesting turtles and disorient hatchlings from making a beeline to the water.