In this easy, "must do" spur-and-groove dive six miles off Key Largo, Fla., in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, we spot our photographic quarry from far away, and descend to 25 feet, alongside a colorful ledge. We begin a slow but deliberate approach toward this big, bruising goliath grouper. We get 10 feet away, then five, then a bit closer. How will it react?
The goliath grouper sidles up next to us. It's curious and trusting--remarkable considering that not too long ago this gentle giant was hunted almost to extinction. My 100-pound subject pays me no mind as I move to within two feet and squeeze the shutter. I subtly change my position some 50 different times and experiment with different lighting angles. Our portrait session lasts 15 minutes. When it's time to say goodbye, it's tough to resist the urge to reach out and pet it.
"This grouper moved like a big, galumphing sort of critter. It was mellow and reminded me of a big, trusting, friendly dog."
Diving here is special because this area is one of the world's fishiest. No kidding. A history of conservation makes tropical fish more than abundant and goliath grouper encounters probable on this reef. With lots of shallow, spur-and-groove reefs, count on chilled-out dives with long bottom times. Key Largo is arguably America's most diver-friendly, dive-ready town and reaching it is simple. Just fly into Miami and rent a car for the 50-mile, hour-and-change ride along the scenic Overseas Highway. All major airlines serve Miami from almost any other American city. Check out fla-keys.com/keylargo for a complete list of the many dive operators and resorts.