TAMPA — Cleatus the goliath grouper was there 25 years ago when the Florida Aquarium first opened its doors in 1995.
Now one of the aquarium’s first — and biggest — residents has died. He was 30 years old, or close to that (that’s his estimated age.)
His health started to deteriorate weeks ago, aquarium officials said. Cleatus died on Friday, and the initial results of a necropsy shows the likely cause of death was advanced age. His passing was announced Monday evening.
“Cleatus was one of the most recognizable animals at the Florida Aquarium, coming eye-to-bulging-eye with millions of guests since day one,” said aquarium president and CEO Roger Germann in a statement issued Tuesday. “We are overwhelmed by the millions of views and outpouring on social media and comforted by the fact that he was loved by so many, including our amazing animal care staff that took care of him every day.”
More than 300 commented on Cleatus’ passing on the Florida Aquarium’s Facebook page.
“RIP Cleatus, being a 25year old Tampa native that has spent time visiting and volunteering at FLAQ, I can honestly say I’ve grown up with this fish and its very sad to see him pass, but amazing how many people he impacted,” wrote Chris Jacobs.
Many parents posted photos of their children lying next to a prone Cleatus as he rested in his habitat — and even posing alongside him as they grew up over the past two decades.
“What a majestic fellow he was!” wrote Trish Rossell. "I’m sure he will be missed.
Atlantic goliath grouper, or Epinephelus itajara, can grow up to 8 feet in length and weigh up to 800 pounds. Cleatus was about 5½ feet long and weighed about 300 pounds, according to a 2018 Florida Aquarium blog post.
He was one of two goliath groupers residing at the aquarium. The other is Gill, who is about 4½ feet long, 200 pounds and lives in the main coral reef habitat. Cleatus took up residence in the Bays and Beaches gallery.
“They’re almost as smart as a dog,” senior staff veterinarian Ari Fustukjian said about the pair in the 2018 blog post. “Long-lived apex predators can be quite intelligent.”
They’re also territorial, which is why they were kept in separate areas.
Goliath grouper can swallow their prey whole. The longest verified life span for a goliath grouper on record is 37 years, according to the aquarium. Some goliath grouper are believed to have lived up to 50 years.
The species was once so badly overfished that it was almost listed under the Endangered Species Act. They live mostly in shallow tropical waters among coral reefs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Keys to the Caribbean. Harvesting the species in the southeast U.S. was prohibited in 1990, allowing the goliath grouper to rebound.
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However, some fishermen consider them a nuisance stealing their catches, and in 2018 asked the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to lift the ban on fishing them. The commission declined to do so, but asked scientists to continue studying the population. The goliath grouper is still listed as “critically endangered.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated with the latest information about Cleatus’ likely cause of death from the Florida Aquarium.