Every summer as the blue water makes it way down our northern coasts, fishermen eagerly dust off their big gear in anticipation of the game fish it carries. This water carries with it more than just big game though; unseen and unnoticed come the larvae of untold tropical species, most doomed to a short existence in New Zealand’s more temperate seas. Some species’ larvae survive and grow through the summer only to have their precarious foothold dashed by winters cold. Others, just cold tolerant enough, settle on islands and headlands where the water is just that fraction warmer than inshore areas and here they survive as isolated individuals or small populations. The frigidity of the water precludes their ever breeding and creating self-sustaining populations; their population sizes being bolstered solely by another warm summer larval influx or decimated or extinguished completely by a cold winter.
I imagine there are countless species represented in N.Z waters by just one or two individuals, unnoticed due to their being unremarkable, but of those with a bigger representation here, one group in particular stand out on account of their often gaudy colours and large size; the tropical groupers.
The first of these species discovered here was the spotted black grouper Epinephelus daemelii. A group of spearos contesting the National Spearfishing Champs discovered the first individuals in the ‘60s, around the Cape Brett area. These divers and others pushed for it’s formal protection and it remains to this day a protected marine fish. Meanwhile other species began turning up - probably a function of the increasing popularity of diving than any actual population increase - such that now there are half a dozen or so species recognized around our coasts.
In my experience, most prefer dynamic shallow areas with a fair bit of water movement, the toadstool grouper Trachypoma macracanthus and yellow-banded perch Acanthistius cinctus, along with the spotted black grouper probably being the species most commonly encountered by spearfishers. By day they live in caves in the shallows and we run into them while chasing crayfish.
The gold ribbon grouper Aulococephalus temminckii is another species immediately recognizable, due to its blue colouration and thick yellow strip running the length of its’ body. While the books will tell you it lives deeper, the only one I’ve ever seen was right up shallow.
Most, excepting the spotted black, are very rare (ironic given that it’s the only one with legal protection) but one in particular stands out from the others, both for the infrequency that it’s encountered here and for its sheer size; the queensland (or giant) grouper Epinephelus lanceolatus - You know the one. Pick up any brochure advertising a tropical getaway and if scuba diving is on offer, then more often than not the resort will run a fish feeding daily, the star attraction of this event being a humongous grouper that lets itself be cuddled and poses obligingly for the cameras. That’s a queensland grouper.
Your chances of encountering one here are about as close to zero as they can get so you can imagine my surprise when, out for a days spearing at the Aldermens in late summer this year, the frantic calls and wild gestures of my dive buddy Pete revealed, when I raced to him and followed his pointing finger, not a man-eating shark (the best kind of beast for story telling) but rather the outline of an altogether different monster.
Sitting atop the pinnacle we were diving, facing into the current and maintaining its position with occasional sculls of its paddle like pectoral fins was, quite simply, the biggest fish I’ve ever seen. A great, fat, beer-bellied giant of a fish. It rolled slightly onto its side and fixed us with its beady little eye for a time. Evidently, we must have failed its character test as it slunk off the apex of the pin and glided down its flank to the sand, where it waddled slowly along the bottom, its immense bulk outlined against the white sand plainly.
“What the ….” I began, but Pete cut me off.
“ Queensland grouper” came his reply. Pete knows about such things
"Holy moley, a real live queensland grouper"
"What to do now?"
Spearing it was out of the question- poor form. Unfortunately, at least two of these magnificent creatures have fallen foul of spearfishers since the species was first recorded here a little over a decade ago. I dunno, they’re big and easy prey and to the Chest Beater in us make tempting targets but had this individual recognized us as the conscientious fellows we like to think we are, it would have known we meant it no harm. If its rare, of ‘tourist value’ to the scuba set or inedible, we don’t shoot. The tropical groupers meet all these criteria.
To the best of our knowledge, the species had only been photographed once before in New Zealand so naturally we wanted a photo - and happened to have a camera trailing off one of the guys’ floats. After a hasty breath up, camera in hand, I descended slowly onto him, his piggy little eye fixed on me, squeezing off frames as I went. Satisfied that I had shots that would be good enough for positive species identification, I took the camera from in front of my face and, for the first time since I’d begun my dive, had a look at him close-up from outside the cameras’ viewfinder.
He was absolutely massive, twice as big as he appeared through the camera. As I turned to ascend, I must have given him a fright as he powered off into the gloom, his tail making a loud ‘boom boom’ noise as he departed.
I surfaced with a smile a mile wide, thankful to have seen such a rare visitor to these shores. We continued our dive and once again Pete found our tubby Australian friend, now sulking in a kelpy gutter. Amazingly for such a large fish, he was superbly camouflaged, becoming almost invisible from some angles. So effective was his camouflage that Pete virtually landed on him trying to get a photo, unaware of his presence just under his fins.
I secretly hoped I was about to witness an event worthy of ‘When Animals Attack IV- Sea Monsters’ but he just glared grumpily at Pete and staunchly refused to budge. When my turn came, I snuck quietly under the kelp canopy to within a metre of his business end, and as I shakily depressed the shutter, he gaped menacingly at me. These guys get themselves in trouble occasionally for ‘inhaling’ the odd scuba diver or part thereof on the tropical reefs where they draw the tourists, and figuring he might get physical if we persisted, we left him be and swam back to the boat where we excitedly replayed our dive and threw around wild estimates of his weight. Eventually we settled for something around 120-180kg- a truly giant grouper.
Like fishermen, spearfishers take to the water not solely to get a feed – buying it from a shop would be far cheaper - but also for the experiences that our sport offers. The day was quiet on the spearing front but in my memory will forever remain one of my best and most treasured dives.
It’s nice to think that our piscine friend is still out there, mooching around whatever reef he’s decided to call home, ready to give some other divers a thrill they’ll never forget. Much better that, surely, than the short-term gratification he would provide the spearo or line fisher who would seek to kill him. Given our protection and a little space and understanding, who knows, maybe one day he’ll reach the 600 kilos that makes his species the worlds largest reef fish.