Divers getting to know giant groupers on reef

Every time we dive the south end of Molasses Reef, I cross my fingers right before I hit the water, hoping “Cooper” will make an appearance.

Cooper is a goliath grouper who for years made his home along the ledge we call Fire Coral Cave. Cooper is a magnificent fish, but he hasn’t let it go to his head. He maintains a stolid, quiet demeanor when he’s approached and he doesn’t seem to mind an audience. I guess when you weigh 300 pounds and measure more than six feet in length, you can afford to ignore a couple of divers.

There are two or three smaller goliath groupers on Fire Coral Cave that we affectionately call “Mini-Coopers.” At least one weighs close to 200 pounds and is nearly as long as I am tall.

I don’t know how Cooper got his name, but I suspect all the dive operators familiar with Molasses Reef know he’s there, and have coined their own name for him.

Grouper comeback

Goliath groupers, sometimes still referred to as “jewfish,” were once approaching extinction. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, we now see them with some regularity.

Goliath groupers can grow more than seven feet in length and can weigh up to 800 pounds. Many scientists believe they can live for 35 years or more.

It’s a real treat to see any of the goliath groupers and even more fun to point them out to a new diver. I love to show folks one of the mini-coopers and then write on my slate “that’s the SMALL one.”

We’ve discovered goliath groupers in various places along our reef line. There was a resident goliath grouper on the City of Washington for years. We’ve encountered them on the Duane and the Spiegel, and I am always envious of the way they swim through the wrecks. They may look like big clumsy fish but they move around corners and down stairwells with a fluid grace that belies their massive bodies.

One day last summer we were approaching a mooring ball and we could see Cooper close to the surface, which was unusual. I jumped in on snorkel to see if I could get a better look and discovered Cooper had a hook in his mouth with a length of leader still attached.

I wanted to take it out so badly but communicating you mean no harm to a fish is impossible. We later heard Cooper had managed to get free of the hook and leader, but we were still disturbed that he had nearly been caught.

A number of our shallow coral reefs are designated as protected sites, called Sanctuary Preservation Areas, or SPAs. Fishing is not allowed in SPAs. Cooper resides, or did reside, in a SPA. I suppose he could have been outside the area when he was hooked, but goliath groupers are fairly territorial and don’t seem to travel very far from home.

Furthermore, goliath groupers are protected from harvesting of any kind regardless of their location. You cannot fish for goliath groupers under any circumstances.

It seems a shame that we’ve put into place acts to create protected habitats and provisions to protect the fish themselves and yet we still see them with hooks in their mouths, or worse, we stop seeing them at all.

In truth, I haven’t seen Cooper in a long time. I’m hoping he’s just moved on.

We’ve made great strides in protecting our oceans and its inhabitants, but the battle’s not over. If you’re headed out to spend a day on the water, take some time to find out what areas and what species are protected. Help us take care of our reefs so we can all enjoy these amazing fish in the years to come.

Katharine “Kat” Wheatley is a dive instructor in Key Largo. She can be reached at