Kermadec Islands - images of giant groupers

By Dr J Floor Anthoni, 2002

One of the most exciting events when diving, is to meet large fish - friendly fish. Since most large fishes are top predators, their numbers are small. Because they live for many years, they run a high risk of being caught. That is why such encounters have become rare. Here at the Kermadec Islands, one finds the fascinating spotted black grouper (Epinephelus daemelii) in sufficient numbers to guarantee an encounter. These fish can grow over 100 years old, reaching a length of 2 metres, weighing over 150kg. The spotted black grouper is very inquisitive and smart and an exciting encounter. 

For their giant groupers alone, the Kermadec Islands are worth visiting. Some are over 50kg and 50 years old. They can grow even larger (to 2.0 metres weighing 150-180 kg!) and older. Miraculously, these impressive, intelligent and inquisitive fish have been spared their extinction, their fate almost everywhere else in the world, and regrettably also around the main islands of New Zealand. Now they are fully protected, their human visitors behave in friendly ways, bringing a welcome change to the boredom of their fishy lives. In New Zealand known as spotted black groupers (Epinephelus daemelii) these large fish are limited to the subtropical waters of northern New Zealand, Three Kings Islands, Norfolk Island and the Kermadecs, eastern Australia, Elizabeth Reef and Middleton Reef, which amounts to a very small habitat area on the globe. This makes them rare. In Australia they are known as saddled rock cod or black rock cod, but their numbers have been greatly reduced by spearfishing and line fishing.

Born as females, the larger groupers turn into males later in life (at a length of about 1.0m), surrounding themselves with harems of half a dozen or more smaller females. Groupers are usually found where the sandy bottom meets the rocky shore, and where a cave or sheltering canyon is nearby. They seek the shelter of such places, to hang suspended in the water while watching the goings-on. Several times each day, they patrol their huge territories in search of easy prey, usually sick animals. The spotted black groper has huge jaws with sharp conical teeth, suitable for holding prey animals. It is an intelligent and inquisitive fish, perhaps capable of hunting in co-operative groups.

Like other groupers, this fish can change its colouring while you watch, from black to grey to brown to white and spotted with five clear oblique bands.

The photos we selected, show how these large fish interact with snorkeldivers. Enjoy your swim!

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f031724: a freediver comes down to meet large white-lip
f031724: a freediver comes down to meet white-lip, the large male grouper. This photo compares his size with that of the human freediver, without distorting the size of either. The other fish in the picture are Kermadec (northern) kahawai.
f031607: White-lip the large grouper comes for a feed
f031607: White-lip is not at all afraid of people and sets the scene by sniffing at some food we brought. Living near Fishing Rock, these groupers are used to a long-lived tradition of being fed scraps and seeing people in the water. Look at his colossal size and how relaxed he is about it all.

f031613: White-lip is really large
f031613: White-lip is not all that interested in food, but more in meeting and touching us. His jaws are big and his teeth sharp, and it is rather daunting to give him an outstretched hand for a cuddle.
f031703: two females vie for the crumbs of dog-sausage
f031703: White-lip has given a clear signal, and one of his females comes close for a good look.

f031704: large grouper and snorkeldiver
f031704: One lady of White-lip's harem is encouraged by his casual behaviour, and decides to come in for the scraps of food offered. The diver has securely locked the rest of the meal in a plastic box. The other grouper watches, and is perhaps next in line. Striped mado dart furiously around to pick at the crumbs.
f031706: a large female wraps herself around the diver
f031706: The female grouper turns out to be insistent on grabbing the plastic box, not afraid of a bit of a jostle with the diver. More groupers appear on the scene.

f031608: a large female enjoying a rub
f031608: A large female allows herself to be stroked, not at all in a hurry to leave. Because visitors to Raoul are relatively rare, and snorkeldivers rarer still, such encounters are not an everyday event, and both species have to get used to one another, which involves trust.
f031701: a large female has become spotted-brown
f031701: Close-up of a large female which has just changed colour. She is well-fed, but the lens distorts her belly somewhat. Notice the light blue fringes on her fins.

f031715: a large female black spotted grouper
f031715: Close-up of a large female grouper.
f031716: a large grouper showing its fleshy tail
f031716: Side and tail of a female grouper. 

f031600: close-up of white-lip the large grouper
f031600: Close-up of White-lip, the large male grouper. He is easily identified by some white spots on his bottom lip and left gill cover, as these blemishes fail to change colour.
f031700: two female groupers
f031700: female groupers.

f031709: closeup of curious female grouper
f031709: A female grouper shows interest in the photographer's camera and quietly hangs stationary in front of him. 
f031332: a young grouper hangs motionless in his home
f031332: A young spotted black grouper hangs motionless in her abode. At 40cm still too young to join a large male, she looks entirely after herself.

f031717: a freediver swims towards a female grouper
f031717: A snorkeldiver has dived down to meet one of the female groupers.
f031718: snorkeldiver meeting an inquisitive female grouper
f031718: The small grouper has mustered all her courage to allow skin contact with the much larger diver. In return, the diver must have enough courage to approach her least sensitive spot: the dangerous mouth.

f031719: snorkeldiver and groupers
f031719: Two young groupers have come to learn the ropes, but they are much more wary than the older ones.
f031612: White-lip opens his gill covers wide
f031612: White-lip opens his formidable cheeks to suck up a morsel of food. These fish have learnt to suck rather than bite, but when they open their large mouths, one is never sure of what will happen next. A mistake is so easily made.

White-lip was not at all impressed with the photographer who failed to cuddle him. So he came up from behind and gave the shutterbug a good thump with his lower jaw; then rubbed his large body all over the photographer's shoulder and neck. The bottom of the lower jaw feels like a hard bony plate, which groupers apparently use for thumping. Irealised he sought attention and I began stroking his massive body with coarse scales. he held me tight with his pectorals as he curved his body around my back, lifting my leg with his tail fin - a backside embrace. Then he made a frontal embrace, with his head down, showing how much he liked my skin rubs by changing to a mottled white colour all over. For good measure I dropped my camera on the 6m deep sandy bottom.
The females whowatched all this, hurried closer in excitement, demanding their turns while also becoming mottly white. It showed me that these wild animals do have emotions resembling affection and that the food was of little importance. Once I collected my camera, they became moreinterested in my buddy for a cuddle. Smaller groupers were too shy though.

When we returned to the rubber dinghy, parked further away, the groupers first stayed away, then turned out in full. While I was kneeling on the sandy bottom and fanning the sand to study what it is made of, White-lip suddenly approached frontally. He laid his large head on my folded knees and looked up to meet my eyes. I stroked him gently, for as long as my breath allowed, while he kept totally still. I then reluctantly had to leave for the surface, gasping for air. White-lip gave another glance, then swam away to the six females who were waiting for him by the anchor, the group disappearing out of sight in the direction of their home. It was late in the afternoon and the fish retired to their den behind(east of)  Fishing Rock.

In all, we spent three snorkel dives of several hours with these gentle giants. It gave them the time needed to get used to us and to trust our good intentions. The first dive we didn't even bring our cameras. We brought some food to break the ice, which helped. But they were more interested in us as other intelligent beings, than in the food we brought. 

A personal account - Floor Anthoni