Hawaii fish snorkeling and marine life guide with photos for identification
Swimming over coral reefs surrounded with tropical fish and other marine life is one of the best things to do while in the Hawaiian Islands. You’ll be even more satisfied with your exploration in Hawaiian waters if you read on to learn more about the common fish and other marine life that call these clear waters their home.
This snorkeling guide will help you with identification of tropical fish found around all of the Hawaiian Islands. Continue reading to learn about the top 33 most common tropical fish and other marine life in the Hawaiian Islands. This guide includes photos to help you with identification.
And in case you should be planning a trip to the Hawaiian Islands, with Maui on your itinerary, make sure to read my post laying out the Ultimate 5-Day Maui Itinerary. You’ll learn about all of the best places and the best time to go.
This beautiful fish is easily found in shallow waters. Trumpetfish are also known as Nunu, a bit of a weird species that look completely different than most common fish found around Hawaii’s coral reefs. Trumpetfish have a long trumpet-like body and they are so thin that from certain angles, they are nearly invisible. These unique but beautiful fish are usually gray, but can change to yellow or green to better camouflage with their clear water environment.
This is probably one of Hawaii’s best-known tropical fish. Moorish idols, with their wide vertical yellow, white, and black stripes, tapered nose, and tall thin dorsal fin, are one of the most recognizable fish on the coral reef. This tropical fish has even become famous on the big screen! One moorish idol you may be familiar with is Frank, the tough leader of the aquarium residents vin the film “Finding Nemo.” Moorish idols can grow fairly large, attaining a length of over eight inches – and that on a primary diet of sponges.
Yellow tang are the fish you’ll see the most on brochures advertising snorkeling. They are completely yellow except for white spines jutting from the base of the tail, these disc-shaped fish often travel in large schools, creating huge patches of color that can sometimes be seen from shore. Yellow tangs often clean the shells of Hawaiian green sea turtles, but they have never been seen to wax them. It has been proven that yellow tangs can live to be at least 70 years old.
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
The Hawaiian green sea turtle is an iconic living symbol of the marine life of the Hawaiian Islands. While sea turtles generally swim quite slowly, they can dash off extremely fast when they want to! These guys are also super strong, and they can weigh up to 400 lbs. Hawaiian green sea turtles are reptiles, and they breathe air at the surface of Hawaiian waters. These turtles come up to breathe every few minutes when they are busy. At rest, they can stay below, in deeper waters, for up to two hours. When you see one – and if you go snorkeling in the Hawaiian Islands, there is a very good chance that you will! – please respect this protected form of marine life. While you enjoy sharing space with such a graceful animal, never touch a Hawaiian green sea turtle, give them room to breathe, and let them swim whichever way they want to go. Thirty feet away is a safe rule of thumb – it keeps all marine life feeling safe.
The humpback whale is one of the most incredible animals swimming in Hawaiian waters. While you won’t see one while snorkeling in shallow waters with tropical fish, there’s a good chance you’ll notice their spouts in the deeper waters. Humpback whales can grow up to 50 feet long, and adult females can weigh up to 50 tons. At birth, calves can weigh up to two tons and be as long as an SUV! These whales migrate thousands of miles every year, in almost a completely straight line. As they must handle oceanic currents, weather, and obstacles throughout their six week voyage. The males sing wonderful complex songs each breeding season that are very hard to imitate.
These large, intelligent animals eat exclusively plankton. The manta ray’s wingspan can reach over 12 feet. From birth, each individual has its own unique pattern of color, with most of the dark on the dorsal surface (back), and most of the light on the ventral surface (belly). A manta’s home range encompasses just a few miles. About ten percent of Maui’s manta rays have been tangled in fishing line, which – among other damage – can cut off their flexible fins used for waving plankton into their mouths. You can see Big Island mantas on an evening snorkel tour off Kona. This is definitely one of the best places in the Hawaiian Islands to swim with manta rays, it truly is a memorable experience.
Whitemouth Moray Eel
This white-speckled moray eel has a brown body, and it often holds its bright white mouth open wide. This moray eel hunts during the day, so you may spot one while you’re snorkeling in shallow waters! Whitemouth morays will often join a hunting party of jacks or goatfish. The eel will dive into holes in the coral reef to flush out prey, while its fish partners wait above to stop the food from getting away. The Hawaiian word for eel in general is “puhi.” This same word is used for a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage technique that mimics the movement of an eel along the client’s lower back.
Snowflake Moray Eel
This moray eel’s body is mainly white, and it has a series of blobs like a Rorschach test along its sides. Eels move like snakes underwater, undulating their muscular bodies back and forth. The snowflake eel hunts for invertebrates during the day, but many other eels rest in their lairs during prime snorkel time, so don’t touch the coral reef. Poking your fingers into the den of an eel can lead to a nasty bite!
Hawaiian Monk Seal
The Hawaiian monk seal, a highly endangered marine mammal, is native to the Hawaiian Islands. Monk seals are the oldest seal species on Earth, and they are called “monk” because they generally swim solo. They eat fish, squid, moray eels, and octopuses. You may see one sleeping on a beach or in an underwater cave. If you encounter a Hawaiian monk seal, it’s a big deal, it should not be disturbed. Most of the small remaining population of Hawaiian monk seals in the are found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Thanks to former U.S. President Obama, that region of the Pacific – the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument – is one of the largest permanent marine protected area in the world!
One of the most common species of tropical fish you will spot snorkeling in shallow waters around the Hawaiian Islands is the black durgeon triggerfish. The average size ranges from 10 – 12 inches long. Triggerfish mainly feed on zooplankton and algae. The black durgeon is most commonly found in the water column. Triggerfish are quite territorial and aggressive toward other coral reef fish.
Saddleback Wrasses are one of the most common reef fish to be found in the Hawaiian Islands. These fish were named for their bold red saddle behind their pectoral fins. There are 43 different species of Wrasse where 13 of them are endemic and can only be found in the Hawaiian Islands.
State Fish of Hawaii – Reef Triggerfish
This Elaborately named Reef Triggerfish is the official state fish of Hawaii and is famous not just in the Hawaiian Islands, but all over the world. It’s another fish you might think is hard to track down, when in fact, they are actually very common in shallow waters.
Hawaiian Sea Cucumber
This unique and strange animal has a distinct tubular shape which some say resembles a sausage. Sea cucumbers use the tube feet that cover their bodies to help them move through the coral reef and are also closely related to sea stars and sea urchins.
Hawaiian Sea Urchin
The long-spined sea urchins found in the Hawaiian Islands, known collectively in Hawaiian as wana (pronounced “vah-na”), are found on coral reef flats and shallow coral reef slopes. They are often wedged into crevices in the coral reef framework. Well-protected from nearly all coral reef predators, their calcite skeleton, or test, bears two kinds of moveable spines, some up to six inches long. Caution: The sting caused by the secondary spines is best treated by soaking in hot water to help deactivate the protein toxins, or by soaking in vinegar to help dissolve the spines. Removal of the brittle spines is often unsuccessful since they fracture into small pieces. Left alone, the spines may be gradually absorbed by human tissues – but urchin spine wounds and stings may require a doctor’s care to assure that infection or encapsulation of the spine does not cause permanent damage.
This species of tropical fish got its name after Achilles, the Greek warrior. Snorkelers can find this the Achilles Tang in shallow waters around coral reefs. Achilles Tangs are easily recognizable: they are larger than most tropical fish and on their dark body there is an orange teardrop patch before the tail, as well as a bright orange bar running along the tail.
The Convict Tang, also known as the Convict Surgeonfish, has a stunning white to silver body highlighted by six vertical black bars. The peduncle spines (near the tail) are rather small compared to that of other Tangs. Convict Tangs have no distinguishing characteristics which will help differentiate males from females. Convict Tangs are very common and often swim in shoals, you may find them around rock, coral reef pinnacles or just cruising around in a group. A very obvious and striking tropical fish.
Butterflyfish are some of the most beautiful and colorful fish you can spot while snorkeling in Hawaiian waters. You can spot them in shallow bays and near the shoreline. There are around 129 species of butterflyfish, and the raccoon species has yellow, white, and black colors similar to other fish in its family. The raccoon butterflyfish’s most unique feature is the bold black and white markings around its face, resembling the markings of a raccoon.
Four Spot Butterflyfish
The four spot butterflyfish has – you guessed it – four spots. That’s two white spots on either side. To imagine what this species of tropical fish looks like, draw a not-so-straight line across the center of their body from nose to tail. Color in dark brown above the line, and put yellow-orange below. Make the nose and head yellow, and place a dark brown and yellow stripe through the eye. Four spot butterflyfish sustain long-term, monogamous relationships. They most commonly eat cauliflower coral polyps.
There are more milletseed butterflyfish, or lemon butterflyfish, on coral reefs than any other butterflyfish species. This tropical fish is bright yellow with columns of black spots like champagne bubbles moving up the fish’s sides, also looks like millet seeds, hence the name. These guys also have a dark stripe masking their eyes. Milletseeds are omnivores and have been seen manning their own cleaning stations, where they pick parasites from other marine life.
These fish are often mistaken for moorish idols when they are first sighted in semi shallow waters. Although their colors are similar, you’ll notice differences between them – especially if you happen to catch a glimpse of the two species side-by-side. The pennant butterflyfish has a white body with two wide black vertical stripes, a yellow tail and dorsal fin, and another tall dorsal fin that trails like a pennant. If you pick up on subtleties, you’ll see that the fish move differently, too: moorish idols seem to drift, while pennant butterflyfish seem to flit. Although they usually spend their time about 40 feet down.
Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish
The Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish, or Forceps Fish, can be found singly or in schools on coral reef flats and slopes. The Longnose Butterflyfish has a yellow body. The color of its head is divided horizontally. The upper half of the head, at the very top of the mouth through the top of the head is black. The lower half is white. The dorsal fin is long and jagged. It is a fairly large Butterflyfish and one of the more common species of tropical fish in Hawaiian waters. The hue of the fish is similar to the coloring of the big, billowy leaves of the Hawaiian wili-wili tree. This fish is prevalent in southern Hawaiian waters by Maui and the Big Island.
Bluestripe snapper are a mainly yellow tropical fish, with four thin blue stripes than run head to tail. Like the peacock grouper, this fish was introduced to Hawaii in the 1950s to supplement the natural game fish, but the snapper (also called “ta’ape”) are hardly eaten here. The bluestripe themselves are predators, eating fish, crabs, shrimp, and other organisms.
Yellowfin goatfish hang out in huge schools in shallow waters all day long, resting. Although they have a horizontal yellow stripe running along their length and yellow fins, they sometimes look almost transparent. You may not see them until you’ve snorkeled very close. At night, these goatfish eat small organisms that live in the sand. Using the strong yet sensitive barbels attached to their chins, goatfish rummage through the top layers of Hawaiian waters, searching for prey. “Weke,” part of this fish’s Hawaiian name, means “to open.” When an individual needed to experience a spiritual opening in ancient Hawaii, healers used goatfish in the religious ceremony.
Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse
The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, like many locals, lives exclusively in the Hawaiian Islands. These small fish are tri-colored, with a black horizontal mark that starts out thin but gradually enlarges until it almost covers the tail end of the fish. From stem to stern, the colors move from bright yellow to purple to magenta. Cleaner wrasses set up shop at a specific spot on the coral reef. When the wrasse’s shop is open, the fish bobs up and down to signal that their service station is ready. While cleaning customers of mucus, dead tissue, and occasionally parasites, these fish trail their fins along their customers’ sides. It has been shown that reef fish instinctively pose to be cleaned; the odd positioning is not something they learn over time.
Parrotfish are the largest and most colorful of the reef fish in the Hawaiian Islands. Sizes range from 10-40 inches. Adult fish have fused front teeth, that almost resemble a parrot-like beak, which is how they get their name. Similar to wrasses, the female parrotfish can change her sex and become a male. Most parrotfishes are omnivores and feed on algae found on coral reefs and in the shadows of Hawaiian waters.
The Yellowtail Coris wrass of the Hawaiian Islands varies in size, from 2 – 15 inches and is typically carnivorous, feeding mainly on smaller fish and invertebrates. The Yellowtail Coris Wrasse and Red Coris Wrasse are the same species, which begs the question, which color is this fish: yellow or red? In fact, the answer is, both! As juveniles, these beautiful tropical fish are bright red with white spots outlined in black. As adults, however, they are multicolored with bright yellow tails. The wrasse tends to forge for food during the day and sleep under the sand of shallow waters at night.
The trunkfish (also known as a boxfish) is a very unique looking tropical fish. Typically, boxfish move slowly and get the name “boxfish” from their hard outer covering. The trunkfish found in Hawaiian waters is a subspecies of those found throughout the Indo Pacific. Trunkfish feed mainly on mollusks, sponges, and algae and are typically 2-4 inches in size. This particular fish is fairly common in the Hawaiian Islands, and usually seen in small crevices. You might even be lucky enough to find this tropical fish swimming about in small tide pools. The male trunkfish has a bright blue color on its sides, while the females are brown with white spots. Spotted trunkfish are naturally territorial.
Hawaiian Sergeant Major
Sergeant Majors are found in almost all coral reef systems worldwide. However, the remoteness of the Hawaiian Islands has altered the Hawaiian Sergeant slightly, to the point that it is technically a different species of tropical fish from those found everywhere else on earth. This tropical fish is also called a Green Damsel Fish, but most know it as the Sergeant Major. It lacks the Intense yellow of the Atlantic Sergeant but is very similar in pattern and shape. This tropical fish also possesses the same teeth and has been known to get a bit nippy with swimmers and snorkelers. They are no Piranha, but if you find yourself getting nipped, it is probably a sergeant.
The Unicorn Fish gets its name not from its scarcity but from the horn-like extension off its snout. These are a sizeable tropical fish and large adults can be found in shallow waters off the Hawaiian Islands in pretty good numbers. The Unicorn Fish is often found in small schools and can be seen in channels and seaward coral reefs with strong surges.
Blacktip Reef Shark
Of the 40 species of sharks found in the Hawaiian Islands, the blacktip reef shark is among the most common due to the areas it inhabits. The blacktip reef shark prefers shallow inshore areas where it is less vulnerable to larger species of sharks in deeper waters. The blacktip reef shark is easily identified by the prominent blacktips on its dorsal fin. In Hawaiian waters, blacktip reef sharks will reach an average of 5.5 feet in length. While you should remain cautious if you see one of these creatures in Hawaii’s waters, shark attacks by blacktip reef sharks are uncommon.
Whitetip Reef Shark
The whitetip reef shark is common to coral reefs all around the Hawaiian Islands. They can be observed resting in caves or under ledges since they are the only shark in Hawaiian waters with the ability to stop swimming and rest for long periods at a time, making them more commonly observed by divers and snorkelers. These sharks are gray in coloration and have slightly flat heads with distinct white tips on the tops of the first and second dorsal and tail fins. While you should remain cautious if you see one of these creatures in Hawaii’s waters, shark attacks by whitetip reef sharks are uncommon.
Spinner dolphins are extremely social, intelligent, and beautiful forms of marine life. They live in large groups called pods, resting together throughout the day and cooperatively hunting and feeding together at night. Spinners eat fish and squid, and no one knows exactly why they spin the way they do. There are many theories, including that they do it for fun, as a form of communication, or to shake off parasites. These dolphins are smaller and more slender than many other species found in Hawaiian waters, attaining an adult length of about 7 feet. A spinner’s body coloration, called countershading, protects them from predators and hides them from prey. The back of the dolphin is dark grey, the middle is a softer, lighter grey, and the lower third is a shade lighter than that. When someone looks at a dolphin from above, the dolphin’s dark grey back blends in with the deep blue sea below. On the other flipper, when you see a spinner from below, their light grey belly blends in with the sunlight streaming in from above. Do not approach, try to swim with, or touch spinners in the water – they need their rest just as much as we do, if not more.
Hawaiian Day Octopus
Hawaiian day octopuses are light brown and tan, with a maximum arm span of about three feet. They dine on crustaceans and are one of the most interesting and intelligent animals on the coral reef! One of its superpowers is “invisibility.” A hiding octopus will camouflage itself by imitating the color and the texture of its surroundings! If you are lucky enough to see one move, keep your eyes glued to it, stay still so that it does not become frightened.
Some Final Words – Exploring coral reefs and snorkeling with tropical fish in the Hawaiian Islands
Hawaiian waters are absolutely teeming with colorful marine life. Snorkeling is one of the easiest and inexpensive ways of exploring this beautiful and unique underwater world. A visit to the Hawaiian Islands is truly not complete without spending time exploring shallow waters just beyond the sandy beaches. If you hang out in the clear waters for long enough, your eyes will adjust so that you can take in the uncommon beauty and vibrant colors of the Hawaiian marine life. Long after you return home from the Hawaiian Islands, memories of beautiful coral reefs, graceful Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles and shapely Moorish Idols will swim across your mind.