That legendary Barnum & Bailey claim kept running through my head as Capt. Mike Newman, G. Buck Manning and I recently swam down a ledge known as “Tunnels,” in about 75 feet off of Jupiter.
Manning, a former chef on marine research vessels, has been underwater all over the world, including Micronesia. He’s recently been spending a lot of time diving in the Florida Keys. The point of this dive outing was to prove to him that if you want to see big marine animals in clear water, the waters off Palm Beach County offer, well, the greatest show on earth.
We dove all day, hitting wrecks, scouring rubble bottom for lobsters, and stopping at the aforementioned Tunnels for our last dive. It's a long, linear tract of reef with up to 12 feet of relief and deep caverns, thanks to the excavation work provided by goliath groupers.
We descended right into a small school of small- to medium-sized goliaths—fish up to about 250 pounds—though they look far larger underwater. We had four spiny lobsters in the bag within a 200-yard stretch. And there were so many colorful grunts and tropical fish swarming it made it difficult to see the lobster’s tentacles.
A little farther down, we saw a loggerhead turtle sleeping in one of the holes swept out by the goliath groupers. Then, at junction in the reef where it bends back to the east we caught the “workers” in action. A large group of adult fish was back 20 feet or so under a ledge, sweeping out sediment with their powerful, broom-like tails. That’s one of the ecosystem services these fish provide for reefs—they sweep sediment off the reefs, providing clean spaces for corals and other colorful invertebrates to take hold. And they create habitat niches for turtles, lobsters and other grouper species, as well as many other fish species.
Manning and I were hanging under a ledge and had one of the biggest goliaths I’ve ever seen swim up and pause to look at us just a few feet away. Like most of the fish, it sported an identification tag that Mike Newman and teams of researchers from a variety of Florida universities attached in the course of researching this remnant population of one of the world’s most rare large groupers.
If you want to see lots of sea turtles and goliath groupers, plan a trip to the Palm Beach area between May and October. Both turtles and goliath groupers are regularly seen year-round in this area. But during those months, the turtles are gathered on these reefs, which are just a short swim for them to the nesting beaches, because it is mating/nesting season. The goliath groupers increase in numbers locally because they return to this area to spawn typically between July and October.
It’s a trip every diver should make, as was evidenced by the big grin on Manning’s face, as we ran back into the sunset. There are many excellent dive operators in the region, including Pura Vida Divers centrally located on Singer Island, the Jupiter Diver Center, and Narcosis Dive Charters, at the Riviera Beach Marina