Hawaii’s waters are filled with a huge variety of colorful ornate and striking marine life. The Coral Reefs that line the stunning coastlines are home to a huge variety of life and can feel very much like swimming in an aquarium. Unlike your usual aquarium, however, there are no labels and no helpful staff to let you know what you are seeing.
Instead, you need a little bit of knowledge or a great reference guide. So we put together our Hawaiian Reef Fish Guide. We have swum and Dived on many of Hawaii’s best reef systems and identified many of Hawaii’s reef fish. Our guide uses some of our own photos, along with a little help, to help you with the identification of many of Hawaii’s most common and not-so-common fish.
This guide will be equally useful to divers but it is more aimed at Snorkelers, while a lot of our photos are taken on dive sites, all the fish and critters in our Hawaii Reef Fish Guide can be seen from any snorkel site at one time or another. We Start off with the common and move on to the rarer species and finish with some of the really cool BIG stuff along with a few chaps you might not want to meet.
Turtles – Honu
Turtles are thankfully VERY common in Hawaii now. Huge efforts were put into protecting them after we nearly decimated them. And these efforts really paid off and Now Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, or Honu, Are everywhere. While obviously not a fish we needed to mention these incredible gentle Creatures in our list.
The Honu is only one of several species found in the Hawaiian Islands, others being:
- Hawksbill Turtle
- Leather Back Turtle
- Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
- Loggerhead Turtle
Unfortunately, these Turtles have not made as dramatic a comeback as the Honu, so you are unlikely to encounter them.
Common – Every Snorkel
The waters of Hawaii
Yellow Tang – Lau’ipala
Known For their Role as Bubbles in Finding Nemo, these Aquarium favorites are found on most reef systems in Hawaii.
These are a real favorite of ours and the placid nature and striking appearance make them a great sighting as they dart around the corals.
Convict Tang – Manini
Flounder from The Little Mermaid is really a made-up fish, certainly not a flounder, which is flat, but the markings and shape closely resemble the convict tang, and that is good enough for us, We are yet to see a mermaid,
Convict Tangs are very common and often swim in shoals, you may find them around rock or coral pinnacles or just cruising around in a group. A very obvious and striking fish.
Butterflyfish – Kikakapu
There are a huge number of Butterflyfish Species found in Hawaii’s Waters. Some are very common and some are far more difficult to find. But You are sure to find Some variety of Butterflyfish on most Snorkel trips. Butterflyfish are very ornate, colorful, and striking fish, often these are the kinds of fish people have in mind when thinking of tropical reef fish. They are not large fish but make up for this in the color and pattern they possess. A large shoal of Raccoon Butterflyfish really feels like you are swimming in an aquarium.
There are many Butterflyfish in Hawaii’s water but the following are the most commonly encountered. Raccoon butterflies can form in shoals of hundreds or more, usually with other species mixed in.
Raccoon Butterflyfish – Kikakapu
Longnose Butterflyfish – Lau Wiliwili Nukunuku ‘Oi’oi
Milletseed Butterflyfish –
Ornate Butterflyfish –
You should spot a huge number of Butterflyfish in most good snorkeling spots and it is a real sign of a good reef.
Hawaiian Sergeant Major – Mamo
Sergeant Majors are found in almost all reef systems worldwide. However, the Remoteness of the Hawaiian Islands has altered the Hawaiin Sergent slightly to the point it is a different species found nowhere else on earth.
Technically it’s 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. They also possess the same teeth and have 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.
Moorish Idol – Kihikihi
Another Hollywood Fish, Again from Finding Nemo. These Spectacular and ornate fish really seem like they should be rarer. They can, however, be found on just about every reef system in Hawaii. We rarely hit the water and don’t see Moorish Idols
Reef Triggerfish – Humuhumunukunukuapuaa
Don’t try and say that after a few Mai Tai’s, In fact, it’s hard enough without alcohol. This Elaborately named Reef Triggerfish is the State Fish Of Hawaii and is famous the world over. It’s another fish you might think is hard to track down. We howled with glee the first time we saw one. But in reality, they are very common.
HumuHumu actually is just the Hawaiian word for a Triggerfish. Nukunukuapuaa means ” with a snout like a pig” Found in most reefs often in very shallow water, you can find them in waist-deep parts of snorkeling spots.
Unicornfish – Kala
The Unicorn Fish gets its name not from its scarcity but from the peculiarly shaped horn protruding from its head. These are Sizable fish and large Adult Fish can be found right up to the shoreline in pretty good numbers. A very spectacular sight indeed.
Surgeonfish are Probably our favorite Group of fish. They are always very Striking and grow to really good Sizes. When there is a healthy population of Surgeons you know you are at a healthy reef.
The Previously mentioned Unicornfish, Convict Tang, and Yellow Tang are all technically Surgeonfish this section looks at the True Surgeons.
Goldring Surgeonfish – Kole
Orangespine Unicornfish – Umaumalei
Achilles Tang – Paku’iku’i
Triggers and Filefish
Another group of striking and good-sized fish that are a joy to spot. This group included the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa that we mentioned earlier
Black Triggerfish (Black Durgon) – Humuhumu Ele Ele
Black Triggerfish can form into huge shoals, at certain times the entire surface layer can be filled with these impressive fish. Everywhere you turn the triggers rain down. These are very docile and quite dim fish that just hang in the water column waiting for food.
While they seem pretty plain, they are actually very pretty fish when you get up close.
Barred Filefish – O’ili
The Barred filefish is a fantastic fish to watch. They are very timid and cowardly, and upon spotting you will likely make a bolt for it. But they are also pretty stupid and will just cram themselves into some small crevice and look at you as if they are invisible. They are the jokers of the reef and we love them
The wrasse are the Cleaners of the oceans. These little brightly colored fish spend their time darting around the reefs, picking off stray bits of food and leftovers, and picking parasites off the reefs more giant creatures. They do a sterling job. They are also very often beautifully colored. While most Wrasse that you will spot are pretty small young fish darting around the coral they can grow to pretty sizable fish that tend to inhabit the deeper waters.
Saddle wrasse – Hinalea Lau-Wili
Saddle Wrasse are fantastic little fish, these colorful little creatures, scurry about very close to shore, and bring life and color to any rockpool or rocky coast.
Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse – Hinalea
Cleaner wrasse are tiny little fish that can easily be missed. They are brightly colored but hide out of sight most of the time. However, they have the habit of coming out and cleaning parasites off the bigger species. So if you find a large number of cleaner wrasse chances are you are at a cleaning station and something cool will be along to donate its parasites for a Free mean for the Wrasse.
Grey/Bowfin/Pacific Chub –
These are BIG Sturdy fish that prowl around the reefs feeding mainly on algae. They are not spectacular to look at but their size can be very impressive. These are some of the biggest fish you will see close to shore. They are not scared of anything and will quite happily let you swim near them as they go about their business.
Yellowfin Goatfish – Wele ‘ula
You will find many species of goatfish in Hawaii, These are often the first fish people sea. They do not hang at the coral reefs and instead inhabit the sandy bottoms. So schools of brightly colored goatfish are sometimes your first sight of marine life. If you are seeing goat fish you are really in the wrong place. Along the sandy bottoms, there is often very little else. Try and head toward the rocky outcrops more.
Blennies And Gobies – ‘O’opu
Blennies and Gobies are small rock-pool fish that can be found all over the coasts in very shallow water and tide pools. Kids adore these and you can view them without venturing into the water.
Some Fish are plentiful but not as plentiful or tend to avoid more commonly swum water or very close to sure. These require a little more effort to find, or a bit of luck. They are regular sights in the waters but, just feel a little more special when spotted.
Bluefin Trevally – ‘Omilu
These are big predatory fish that stalk the fringes of reefs looking for a stray fish and an easy meal. Stunning to look at in their striking blue colors they are a real treat. While these fish are pretty common, they do take a bit of finding and heading out to deeper more exposed parts of the reef.
Bullethead Parrotfish –
These Big Coral Munching fish are aptly named Parrotfish not just for their wonderful coloration but also for their beaks that they use to munch on the Coral and produce SAND! Yes, those wonderful sandy beaches that you sip your Mai Tai’s on are actually Parrotfish S%*t …so say thank you if you get to see one.
Freckeled Hawkfish – Hilu piliko’a
These Crazy looking fish can only be found down at the bottom foraging among the Corals. Half fish, half …err lizard? These are pretty amazing to see but can be tricky to find.
Marbled Hawkfish – Piliko’a
Another of Hawaii’s Hawkfish. The Marbled Hawkfish are fairly large bottom dwellers that hide away in the Coral and nooks and crannies.
Peacock Grouper – Roi
These are big, brightly colored fish that have very few predators and as such are very brash. If you spot one of these it is unlikely to be spooked and will just go about its business. While they are an impressive sight they are sadly invasive and cause a lot of problems on Hawaii’s Reefs
Bluestripe Snapper – Ta’ape
You rarely see these brightly colored Snappers on their own. These are shoaling fish and you find them densely packed around rocky pinnacles and coral stacks. These are a great signs of a healthy reef system and are a joy to encounter.
Trumpetfish – Nunu
When you spot one of these alien-looking beasts they need little identification. The first few times it’s simply WTF! These are peaceful creatures that simply float around not really seeming to do a great deal. Their name is pretty self-explanatory as they look pretty much like a trumpet.
Squirrelfish – ‘Ala’ihi
We strongly encourage divers and Snorkelers to peer into any nook and cranny, alcove, or crevice. You never know what you will find. However, should you peer in only to find a big eye peering back…try not to jump out of your skin, it will likely just be a Squirrelfish resting.
These nocturnal fish find dark quiet hiding places during the day to rest before coming out at night and putting that big eye to use.
Hawaiian Damsel – ‘Alo’ilo’i
An endemic Secis to the Hawaiian Island the Hawaiian Damsel is a fairly innocuous fish but spotting one is a real delight knowing you can find this fish nowhere else! The Little Damsel likes to make its home in large healthy coral heads another reason this fish is great to spot as it shows the health of the Reef! Finally, if you can get up close to one, you may hear it grunting, which is pretty cool. You can hear them grunting away in this Video (2:48).
These are the Goldilocks Species that require hunting out or great fortune to spot. Be assured they are in the water but your chances of bumping into them are slim and you should feel very blessed and excited if you do.
These incredible fish are possibly the weirdest fish on earth, at least anything that isn’t from the abyssal depths. The Frogfish is scarcely recognizable as a Fish or anything else for that matter. Running into one feels like running into some forgotten creature from the prehistoric.
It is pretty unlikely you will find one however as they are pretty rare and very good at camouflage. If you do manage to pick one out well done, these are a real treat!
Day Octopus – He’e
Another Master of Camouflage, you will only spot the day octopus if it moves, and once it stops you are likely to lose it instantly. It can vanish into the tiniest little hole and be gone for good. The good news is these critters are active throughout the day and roam around the reefs looking for a meal.
Moray Eels – Puhi
We love Morays. While they may not win any beauty contests these monsters from the deep are fantastic to see. weather, you find one just chilling in its hole mouth agape, or out swimming from hole to hole they are a real joy to behold.
Less common from shore but on snorkeling trips to remote reefs such as Molokini they can regularly be spotted. There are several types to find. The most common being the Stout Moray, but there are Snowflake, Whitemouth, Zebra, Dwarf, and Yellow Margin Morays too. You may even spot the Giant Moray, See Below!
Red Pencil Urchins – Ha’uku’uku’ula’ula
A real Icon of Hawaii. These startling urchins are very common amongst the Rocks and Corals of the Islands. Completely harmless and sedate, they just sit on the bottom looking pretty. Unlike the Rock Boring Urchin or the Black Sea Urchin who are both very painful to step on and will leave spines in your feet!
Mottled Sea Star – Hoka
There are only a few Starfish found in Hawaii’s waters and non are in huge numbers. One of our childhood favorites is pretty hard to come by in Hawaii. While they are abundant in the deeper waters the Shallow water Species have not really made it out here to thrive. Look carefully in cracks and crevices and you may find one or two, or look under rocks for brittle stars (you might make a few friends doing this!)
You may also spot a crown of thorns Starfish, an enemy on many reefs, but they are native to Hawaii and cause few problems out here.
Spiny lobster – Ula
Lobsters are often on the Menu in Hawaiian restaurants but few are now caught in Hawaiian waters as they have been largely fished out. There are heavy protections in place no and most Lobsters are flown in, often from Main or the Caribean, where there is an abundance.
Spotting one out on the reef is a tough ask as they hide away deep in crevices and rarely come out. We think they know how delicious they are!
Shrimps and Crabs
Again considering the huge numbers of fish and marine life in the waters it is surprising to find so few crustaceans. We rarely see crabs and while there are many shrimp species they are pretty rare.
Banded Coral Shrimp – Ōpae kai
The one we do see quite often it the Banded Coral Shrimp. Look under any overhang or crevice and you may spot one hiding away, it’s not like you can miss them!
BIG Stuff –
With the BIG creatures, you are likely to need to get a bit further out. These are primarily the domain of divers, but more adventurous snorkelers have a good chance at the right spot.
Dolphins – Nai’a
There are several species of dolphins that inhabit the shores of Hawaii. You do have to get pretty lucky to encounter them in the water. While they readily approach boats and play in the bow waves they are warier of us when we are in the water.
You should never approach dolphins but if you are lucky enough for them to come to you just let them guide you and never touch, grab or ride them. They are wide creatures and are simply coming for a look at you.
Manta Rays – Hahalua
These Giants are on many people’s bucket lists and we have been enthralled by them since childhood. They can be found all over the islands but on a few select locations can they be reliable. There are a few cleaning stations that regularly host Mantas and there are Night Diving Sites in Kona that are very reliable, but outside of these spots, it’s down to luck.
Eagle Ray – Hihimanu
Eagle Rays are far more common in Hawaii waters and often swim right into the reefs and bays. If there is any deep water keep your eyes on it for dark shapes as Eagles rays are quite common and while not as stunning as giant Manta’s they are still pretty cool and the mottled skin is quite beautiful. They are not overly scared f us and you can swim along with them for quite a while, feeling very in touch with the Ocean!
Giant Trevally – Ulua Aukea
A fisherman’s favorite the GT is a large powerful fish that hunts hard and hits prey hard. You are very unlikely to see a large adult when snorkeling but juveniles are common. They have a very dark almost black appearance when young so easy to tell from a Blue-fin Trevally.
Giant /Javanese Moray Eel – Puhi
These are rare in shallow waters but they are fairly common in the deeper parts of Hawaii’s oceans. We often see them Diving, but we thought we would add them as, well. WOW! These things are enormous, their heads about the same size as yours and you feel you could easily end up in there! They are pretty placid and simply hang out breathing through that Giant mouth! You can see them here on a Lanai Adventure dive.
Humpback Whales – Kuapio Kohola
Especially in Maui, the chance to bump into a Whale is unlikely but definitely possible. You will have no doubt seen them breaking the surface just off the coast and if your snorkel sight has deep water exposure it’s definitely possible.
However, it is pretty unlikely. We have never managed to swim with one from shore. That does not mean you cannot experience one from shore. One of the most magical things about the Humpbacks of Maui is the song. Dive down a few feet, let your ears settle, and hold your breath and let everything be still. You will clearly and unmistakably hear the Whalesong, assuming they are nearby and it is truly magical.
White Tip Reef Sharks – Manō Lālākea
The Reefs are home to a number of completely harmless reef sharks. These are usually in slightly deeper water and usually only accessible
Other Sharks – Mano
There are Sharks in Hawaii’s waters and some are even potentially man-eaters. But shark attacks in Hawaii are shockingly rare. So don’t be concerned and please don’t google it, Shark Attacks make headlines, even though they are so rare a heap of headlines makes them sound common. There is almost zero chance you will encounter a shark in coastal Snorkelling locations and if you do you should feel lucky.
We have only encountered Sharks when we have looked for them and almost always when diving specifically for them. Still, Hawaii’s remote oceanic location means many species of shark can end up in the waters including
Great White Sharks
King of the Ocean, The Chances of encountering one of these while snorkeling in Hawaii are practically nil. They are in Hawaiian water in small numbers but do not venture into places where you could encounter them by accident.
This is a true oceanic Shark that roams the open ocean, this will naturally put it on a collision course with the Hawaiian islands, But it is not a shore fish so unless you are snorkeling miles out to sea you will not see a blue. And even if you did it would be no threat.
Oceanic White Tips
Like the Blue, these are open ocean sharks so no concern at all. However, they are actually one of the most deadly sharks for humans and are responsible for more human deaths than any other shark. But the vast majority of these attacks were naval men during WW2 after their ships were sunk. Most probably as good as dead when the sharks moved in any way.
Of all the Sharks in Hawaii, the only one that is any type of threat is the Tiger. These will actually attack humans, although rarely on purpose. Mostly of concern to Surfers where attacks are mistaken identity. Like most sharks in Hawaii, you will only ever see a Tiger if you look for it, and even then you will be lucky!
There are a few locations and Dive spots where you Can see Hammerheads, we have been lucky enough to dive with schools of these off Molokai and it was incredible. They are no threat at all to humans and you are very unlikely to see one by accident, if you do, you are very lucky indeed.
These are the most likely shark you could encounter, Apart from the Whitetip Reef Shark. These prowl the outer fringes of the reefs and are only interested in fish. We have seen these around Molokini but only off the back wall.
Unintentional Shark encounters in Hawaii are incredibly rare, and any incident is even more unlikely. Snorkeling near shore in calm clear waters then the chances of seeing anything remotely close to attack size are infinitesimally small. We only mention sharks simply out of interest and completeness.
Have Your Say?
Got anything to Say about Hawaii’s incredible reef fish? Just pop us a comment below. Seen something you can’t identify? again drop us a comment and we will see if we can help