Hawaiian Reef Fish Guide – Hawaii Reef Fish Identification Guide

Hawaii’s waters are filled with a huge variety of colorful ornate and striking marine life. The Coral Reefs the 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 our own photo’s along with a little help, to help you with the identification of many of Hawaii’s most common and not so common fish.

Hawaiian Reef Fish Guide

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 on 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

Napili Turtle

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.

If you want to see Turtles in Maui check out our guide here

Common – Every Snorkel

The waters of Hawaii are RAMMED with fish and any snorkel for even a moderate length of time over varied terrain or reef will reveal a plethora of fish species mostly bright, colorful, and wonderful to watch, first, we focus on the most common, these can be seen almost every time you hop in. Some Species seem incredibly exotic and rare the first time you see them but turn out to be very common in Hawaii’s beautiful waters.

Yellow Tang Lau’ipala

Known For its 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

Convict TangManini

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, however.

Fish Rock Lanai Maui

Butterflyfish – Kikakapu

There are a huge number of Butterflyfish Species found in Hawaii’s Waters. Some are very common and some 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 patterning 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 uncounted. Raccoon butterflies can form in shoals of hundreds or more.

Raccoon Buterflyfish

Raccoon ButterflyfishKikakapu

Longnose Butterflyfish

Longnose Butterflyfish – Lau Wiliwili Nukunuku ‘Oi’oi

Milletseed Butterflyfish

Millet Seed Butterflyfish
Lau Wiliwili

Ornate Butterflyfish

Ornate Butterflyfish
Kikakapu

You should spot a huge number of Butterflyfish in most good snorkeling spots and it is a real sign of a good reef.

Hawaiian Sargent Major

Hawaii_sergeant

Hawaiian Sergeant Major – Mamo

Sergeant Majors are found n 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 swimmer and snorkelers. They are no Piranha but if you find yourself getting nipped it is probably a sergeant.

Moorish Idol

Moorish IdolKihikihi

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

Humuhumunukunukuapuaa

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 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.

Unicornfish

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.

Surgeons

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 Surgeon

Goldring SurgeonfishKole

Orangespine Unicornfish

Orangespine Unicornfish Umaumalei

Achilles Tang

Achilles TangPaku’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 Triggerfish (Black Durgon) Humuhumu Ele Ele

Black Triggerfish can form up 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 a very pretty fish when you get up close.

Yelloweye filefish

Yelloweye FilefishO’ili

The Yelloweye 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

Wrasse

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

Saddle wrasse – Hinalea Lau-Wili

Saddle Wrasse by Basilosauriedae on CC4.0

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

Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse – Cleaning a Dragon Wrasse!

Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse by Mila Zinkova on CC3.0

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.

The image above also shows a Dragon Wrasse, a pretty impressive fish, but unfortunately quite rare.

Bowfin Chubb

Grey/Bowfin/Pacific Chub
Nenue

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.

Goatfish

Yellowfin GoatfishWele ‘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 fist 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.

blenny

Blennies And Gobies ‘O’opu

Blennies and Gobies are the 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.

Less Common

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 at molokini

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

Bullethead Parrotfish
Uhu

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

Freckeled HawkfishHilu 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 HawkfishPiliko’a

Another of Hawaii’s Hawkfish. TheMarbled Hawkfish are fairly large bottom dwellers that hideaway in the Coral and nooks and crannies.

Peacock Grouper

Peacock GrouperRoi

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 their business.

Fish Rock Lanai Maui

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 sign of a healthy reef system and are a joy to encounter.

Trumpetfish

TrumpetfishNunu

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

Squirrelfish‘Ala’ihi

We strongly encourage divers and Snorkeler 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 it’s 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).

Rare –

These are the Goldilocks Species ones 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.

frogfish

Frogfish

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 on 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

Day OctopusHe’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

Moray EelsPuhi

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 tp 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!

Critters –

Red Pencil Urchins

Red Pencil UrchinsHa’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 that are both very painful to step on and will leave spines in your feet!

mottled Sea Star

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 crack 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.

Spiney lobster

Spiny lobsterUla

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 hideaway 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 crustateans. We rarely see crabs and while there are many shrimp species they are pretty rare.

Banded Coral Shrimp

Banded Coral ShrimpŌpae 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.

Four Winds II Dolphins

DolphinsNai’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 more wary 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 Ray

Manta RaysHahalua

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

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!

Swimming with Eagle Ray in Napili, Maui

giant-trevally

Giant TrevallyUlua Aukea

A fisherman 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.

moray Giant Moray

Giant Moray EelPuhi

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, there 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!

Humpback Whale

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 near-by and it is truly magical.

whitetip reef Shark at Molokini

White Tip Reef SharksManō Lālākea

The Reefs are home to a number of completely harmless reef sharks. These are usually in slightly deeper water and usually only accessible to divers but there is a chance you could bump into a White Tip Reef Shark while Snorkelling the reefs, especially if you venture to drop off’s or the edge of deeper water.

Other Sharks – Mano

Sharks

There are Sharks in Hawaii’s waters and some are even potentially man-eaters. But shark attacks on 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 make the 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 number but do not venture into places where you could encounter them by accident.

Blue Sharks

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 Navel men during WW2 after their ships were sunk. Most probably as good as dead when the sharks moved in any way.

Tiger Sharks

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!

Scalloped Hammer-Heads

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.

Galapagos Sharks

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.

Full Identification Guide

Unintentional Shark encounters in Hawaii are incredibly rare, and any incident 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

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