The Florida sun was warm and high overhead as I donned my fins and slipped below the surface with camera in hand. A juvenile spotted eagle ray lazily glided away over the sand to avoid the impending intrusion of noisy bubbles and camera flashes. As I finned towards the shadows, I stopped to investigate a small male rosy razorfish in full breeding colors flitting about frantically, as I intruded on his territory.
Statistics show that more Americans dive in the US state of Florida than any other place on the planet, but when you consider what is on offer, it is hardly surprising. The state’s government has been instrumental in sinking some of the world’s largest (so-called) artificial reefs, but there are also freshwater pools, caves and caverns with a constant warm water temperature all year-round, which certainly appeals to winter divers.
A winter’s dawn is a special time to be on Kings Bay, for as the first rays of the Florida sun appear over the horizon, they light up the soft mist on the warm waters of the bay and create an ethereal, almost mystical, feeling. Listen carefully and you will hear the gentle ripples from the swirl pools formed by the paddle-like tails of the sirenians, as they make their way towards the freshwater springs that are the source of Crystal River.
Goliath grouper, or Epinephelus itajara, are the subject of strong opinions and divided emotions. Divers love to see these mammoth fish; underwater hunters denounce them as competitors, or covet them as outsized trophies; fishermen are just itching for a policy change that allows harvest; and regulatory bodies seem constantly poised to rescind long-term protection in favor of short-term exploitation.
Miles of white sandy beaches, family vacation destinations, infamous spring break festivities and outstanding state parks attract millions of visitors to Florida annually from around the world. But there is so much more to see—especially for those who like to take their sightseeing down below the ocean and gulf waters—like the beauty and magic of thousands of artificial reefs that lie beneath the surface along Florida’s coastlines.
For best viewing of the massive numbers, head to Jupiter on the eastern coast of Florida. Groupers travel from as far away as Fort Myers and northeast Florida for the spawning events on wrecks and reefs. The window of opportunity to dive with these large fish in these high numbers is quite small. Most of the fish are gone by mid-October, but some remain year round. Goliath groupers can reach up to 800 pounds and were nearly fished out in the 1970s and 80’s, but have made a strong comeback under a protection ban that was established in 1990.