David and the Goliath Grouper

-a short story by Steve Eilenberg

Lola was my first. Not L-O-L-A, Lola, but a 400-pound *goliath grouper. She greeted us on our first dive, visiting all 8, one at a time. She made the rounds again and again, largely in the same order. She received attention, some chin scratches, and was the subject of many photos. Generally, I try to avoid photographing other divers and their bubbles but in this case, they lend valuable scale.

Giant Black Sea Bass in Kelp Forest. He is about 5 feet long but so hard to tell without a diver nearby

Hard to take in its size without scale, this black sea bass in the California kelp forest is about 5 feet long

It is not uncommon to encounter an unusually friendly underwater critter, but they often choose their favorites while neglecting other divers. This favoritism may come from familiarity, diver bling, smuggled food, or something intangible. Being on the outs underwater can be a bit deflating, not to mention missing good photo opportunities, unless you like photos of fish butts.

400 pound Goliath Grouper. No scale  

Goliath Grouper with Marie for scale

The following day would be our only night dive of the trip. On our 2015 trip to “Gardens of the Queen” in Cuba, we had none, so night dives are evidently rare. My go-to setup for night dives is generally a macro or a super macro rig as this is when exotic tiny critters come out to hunt and have critter sex. I didn’t recall much in the way of macro subjects so gladly omitted packing the necessary gear. It saved me luggage space and kept the camera bag at just under 50 pounds, the airline’s weight limit.

I don’t recall ever shooting wide angle at night but surely there would be a curious shark or turtle to photograph! Within the first 5 minutes of the dive, Maydel, our dive guide, used his flashlight to show me a subject. I swam down the base of a wall and saw a lit Gorgonian fan with a collapsed basket star on its fringe. It was such a sad and unimpressive diorama, I didn’t even pretend to be interested and veered off, almost running into Lola. That was what Maydel was trying to show me. I blushed with embarrassment, not that anyone could see my face. I hoisted up my wide-angle rig to photograph Lola, without scuba bubbles or other divers in the way.

Lola found us on this night dive

Unlike the previous day, she stayed with just me and a few other nearby divers. My eyes and hers followed the circle of my dive light until it happened on a hogfish. I dialed in the camera settings and adjusted the strobes. I got off one photo before Lola advanced and inhaled the fish. She then veered off, leaving in her wake a hurricane of stirred-up sand. Time to find a new subject!

Unsuspecting Hogfish

A few minutes later, we found a large lobster holed up in a rocky cubby. Lobsters around the world have a similar reaction to divers. You extend your hand and they feel you with their antennae. They touch and tap the hand with interest, perhaps wondering if it can eat it or mate with it, ultimately deciding on neither. They relax, like introducing yourself to a dog. I withdrew my hand and dialed in the camera settings. I am not sure why I bother, because aside from illustrating this story, I never exhibit or show lobster photos.

Lobster in rock cubby

A moment after the 3rd strobe flash, Lola dive bombs in and with a chest reverberating thud, her mouth closes. Another hurricane of sand and Lola veered off. This time she briefly convulsed and coughed up a large round object, the size and shape of an angel food cake. The resemblance to a large cat hairball was unmistakable. The rejected object gently lofted down on Greg’s head, bounced off and slowly descended to the ocean floor. It was a sizable sponge. The sand settled and the lobster was alive and well, just a bit deeper in its hole. This shadow hunting behavior was getting old. If I was shooting macro, those subjects would hardly be worth eating, as they are often the size of a matchhead. Hardly a meal for our hungry heifer. With Lola as our uninvited guest, we were saddled with the extra responsibility of painting our lights on suitable tasty critters. Could we get the photo before the meal and did we want to be complicit in their deaths?

Greg was now ahead of me and pointed out a colorful night-feeding octopus (who we’ll call David) to Maydel, our dive guide. Octopi are always a welcome sighting, often the highlight of our dives. David was large enough for my wide-angle setup and was actively hunting. I’m sure he was very aware of us but didn’t seem to care or know we had a frenemy in tow. On any other dive, we would gingerly swim in, take a few shots, rotate in another photographer, and so on, until either we stirred up the bottom too much, scared the animal into a hole or just annoyed it enough for it to swim away. You never want to be that person! We’ve all worn that badge of shame before.

David, the hunting octopus

The excitement of the octopus sighting made me briefly forget about Lola. Greg’s camera wasn’t working properly, probably why he generously showed Maydel his octopus find. My camera was in a dead-end setting that didn’t allow me to shoot with strobes, at that moment. Frustrated, I fumbled with the camera controls to bring it back to life. I managed to get off one decent shot. Lola was at my right elbow and if goliath groupers drool, certainly she would be making a mess. Quickly realizing the almost certain fate of David, the octopus, I jutted out my elbow in a feeble attempt to protect him. I was hopelessly outmatched. Nothing short of a bulldozer could have kept Lola away. In a flash, the sandstorm returned and our chests reverberated with the deep thud of the mouth trap closing. The octopus would have been the crown jewel of the night dive and she ruined it.

The few of us with sights on the octopus dispersed, photographically penniless. Wide angle at night?…Bad idea (at least for me)!

Moments later, in the water column above, Maydel was vocalizing loudly through his regulator and wildly flashing his light on Lola. This is a universal sign meaning drop everything and come. The octopus was on Lola’s face. David the octopus and Lola the Goliath grouper were in full on Biblical combat! The sidelight lit up two tentacles fringing Lola. Were these the messy remains of David the octopus or was this the luckiest critter around? I swam underneath the behemoth and there was a very much alive David, moving down Lola’s length. At one point David’s tentacles were closing the Lola’s left gill plate. Lola was frantic, shaking side to side and swimming in circles.

Maydel found the David on Lola!

David with Goliath

I had an idea, a very bad one, but an idea nevertheless. I would offer my hand and arm to David, who would certainly prefer my refuge to this thrashing death star. David didn’t budge. Reflecting on the moment, if he had crawled onto my arm, we both would have been in peril. Animal friendship would only go so far if I was festooned with a tasty meal.

Lola with octopus in tow

Plan B was me and Maydel trying to pry the octopus off to calm Lola and save David. The octopus was seemingly crazy-glued on and I didn’t want to hurt him. Maydel gave Lola a reassuring hug and we all descended to the sea floor. Lola, head down and motionless was patiently waiting for the separation. This was one of those “when animals ask for help” moments that we’ve all seen on Facebook and YouTube.

Lola going quiet, in a head down position. Asking for help.

Lola cooperating

Once Maydel pried David off of Lola, he escaped in an instant, diving into the rocks below. There was a puff of black ink and his legs retracted from sight like the flattened wicked witch of the east. Lola peeled off and was gone into the night.

The last we saw of David, the octopus

Once back on the skiff, Maydel declared to no one in particular “That was the best night dive ever!”.

Me, to Maydel “Lola was such a jerk tonight!”

Maydel: “That was One-Eyed Lily, not Lola!”

In the excitement, none of us had noticed the goliath was blind in one eye. No wonder Lola/Lily needed to team up with our lights to shadow hunt at night!

* Goliath (/ɡəˈlaɪəθ/ gə-LY-əth)[a] is a character in the **Book of Samuel, described as a Philistine giant defeated by the young David in single combat. The story signified King Saul’s unfitness to rule, as Saul himself should have fought for Israel.[1] Scholars today believe that the original listed killer of Goliath was Elhanan, son of Jair,[2] and that the authors of the Deuteronomic history changed the original text to credit the victory to the more famous character David.[3][4]
The phrase “David and Goliath” has taken on a more popular meaning denoting an underdog situation, a contest wherein a smaller, weaker opponent faces a much bigger, stronger adversary.[5]
**The Book of Samuel (Hebrew: ספר שמואל, Sefer Shmuel) is a book in the Hebrew Bible, found as two books (1–2 Samuel) in the Old Testament. The book is part of the Deuteronomistic history, a series of books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) that constitute a theological history of the Israelites and that aim to explain God’s law for Israel under the guidance of the prophets.


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2 thoughts on “David and the Goliath Grouper

  1. Great storytelling & photography! It’s another world down under, thanks for sharing it with us.

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