Hawaiian Fish: An Introduction to Snorkeling
Hawaiian fish that you will see snorkeling are simply stunning!
Welcome to the beautiful islands of Hawaii, where crystal-clear waters and vibrant marine life create a snorkeler’s paradise.
Whether you’re a seasoned snorkeler or a beginner eager to explore the underwater world, Hawaii offers an incredible opportunity to witness an array of fascinating fish species in their natural habitat.
Hawaii, with its stunning beaches, lush landscapes, and rich cultural heritage, is a dream destination for travelers from around the world.
This tropical archipelago in the central Pacific Ocean is known for its enchanting beauty both on land and beneath the waves.
Snorkeling is an easily accessible and exhilarating water activity that lets you admire the amazing world of Hawaii’s coral reefs, and our Hawaiian fish snorkeling guide will let you name and recognize many of the spectacular tropical fish you will see!
We’ll also shine a spotlight on Hawaii’s endemic and rare fish species and other marine life on the coral reefs.
From the endangered Hawaiian green sea turtle to the elusive bandit angelfish, these treasures make snorkeling in Hawaii’s underwater world so special!
My personal favorite snorkeling locations to see many of these vibrant tropical fish include Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu, with its stunning coral gardens, and Molokini Crater off the coast of Maui, a haven for colorful fish species.
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In this blog post, we aim to be your snorkeling companion, guiding you through the spectacular world of Hawaiian fish.
My biggest frustration when I initially started snorkeling in the waters of the Hawaiian islands was not being able to name any of the amazing tropical reef fish I saw, hence this Hawaii fish snorkeling guide for you!
Understanding Coral Reefs
Corals are the backbone of the coral reef ecosystem, serving as the architects of these underwater wonderlands.
They are tiny animals known as polyps that form colonies by secreting a hard exoskeleton made of calcium carbonate.
These structures create intricate formations, providing shelter, protection, and food sources for countless marine organisms.
Corals come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, ranging from branching corals that resemble underwater trees to massive dome-shaped corals that create stunning underwater landscapes.
Coral reefs are further extended by several invertebrates. These fascinating invertebrates, along with the corals, form the intricate tapestry of life that thrives within Hawaii’s coral reefs.
Each species plays a crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance and contributing to the overall health and beauty of the reef ecosystem.
Anemones are exquisite invertebrates resembling delicate underwater flowers, often found attached to rocks or corals.
They have stinging tentacles that not only serve as a defense mechanism but also provide shelter and protection for various fish species, such as clownfish.
They create a stunning backdrop for the colorful fish species seeking refuge within their graceful arms.
Sea cucumbers are peculiar creatures with elongated bodies and soft, leathery skin. They play a vital role in the coral reef ecosystem as nutrient recyclers.
They consume detritus and algae, contributing to the overall health and cleanliness of the reef.
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Sea Stars (Starfish)
Sea stars, also known as starfish, are iconic invertebrates with multiple arms radiating from a central disk. They are important predators in the coral reef ecosystem, feeding on small organisms such as mollusks and crustaceans.
Nudibranchs (Sea Slugs)
Nudibranchs, often called “sea slugs,” are stunning invertebrates known for their vibrant colors and intricate patterns.
They feed on sponges, hydroids, and other small invertebrates and serve as indicators of the overall health and diversity of the coral reef.
Sea urchins are spiky invertebrates that inhabit the coral reefs, typically clinging to rocks and corals.
They graze on algae, helping to control its growth and maintain a healthy balance within the reef ecosystem.
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Common & Beautiful Hawaiian Fish Snorkeling Encounters
When snorkeling in Hawaii’s waters, you’re likely to encounter a bewildering variety of tropical fish species.
These common species of fish in Hawaii serve important roles in the coral reef ecosystem. They contribute to nutrient cycling, control algae growth, and serve as prey for larger predators, maintaining the delicate balance of the underwater environment.
Let’s dive into some of the most common tropical reef fish you can expect to see and learn how to identify them.
The Yellow tang is a popular fish, roughly 8 inches long, known for its bright yellow color and small, oval-shaped body. Yellow tangs are a common sight in the coral reefs of Hawaii, particularly in the shallow coastal waters.
Yellow tangs primarily feed on algae and play a crucial role in controlling its growth, which helps maintain the health of the coral reefs.
If you’re snorkeling around the Molokini Crater off Maui, keep an eye out for the magnificent Chevron tang. Its vivid orange body and zigzag patterns are sure to leave a lasting impression.
The Convict tang showcases a striking yellow body adorned with black stripes, resembling the appearance of a convict’s uniform. It grows up to 10 inches and is commonly found in the shallow water of reefs and lagoons.
Convict tangs are herbivorous, feeding on algae and small invertebrates. Their grazing behavior helps prevent the overgrowth of algae, contributing to the balance of the reef ecosystem.
State Fish of Hawaii: Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (Reef Triggerfish)
The Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the state fish of Hawaii, is known for its oval-shaped body and stunning blue to yellow coloration. It inhabits rocky and coral reef areas along the coastline.
Reef triggerfish have a varied diet that includes algae, small crustaceans, and invertebrates. They also play a vital role in the reef ecosystem by controlling the population of certain invertebrates.
Explore the waters around Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, where the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a frequently graces snorkelers with its presence.
If you find yourself snorkeling near the famous Waikiki Beach in Oahu, keep an eye out for the vibrant Wedgetail triggerfish. Its electric blue coloration and distinct wedge-shaped tail make it a true gem of Hawaiian waters.
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The Picasso triggerfish boasts bold patterns of black, white, and yellow, resembling a work of art. It prefers rocky areas and coral reefs with plenty of hiding spots.
Picasso triggerfish have a diverse diet that consists of small fish, crustaceans, and various invertebrates. Their foraging activities contribute to the overall balance of the reef ecosystem.
Look out for Picasso triggerfish while snorkeling off the coast of Kona on the Big Island.
The Raccoon butterflyfish features a black mask across its eyes and a black band across its body, adding to its charm. It can be found near coral reefs, particularly in areas with abundant coral formations.
Raccoon butterflyfish primarily feed on coral polyps, small invertebrates, and algae. They play a role in maintaining the health of coral reefs by controlling the growth of certain organisms.
Snorkel around the coral reefs of Maui’s Molokini Crater, where you’re likely to encounter Raccoon butterflyfish.
For a chance to spot the elusive and visually captivating Milletseed butterflyfish, head to the coral reefs of the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay. Its intricate yellow and black patterns are a marvel to behold.
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The Pennant butterflyfish is characterized by its elongated body and vibrant yellow coloration. It inhabits coral reefs and can be seen swimming near the reef edges.
Pennant butterflyfish primarily feed on coral polyps, small invertebrates, and algae. Their grazing behavior helps prevent the overgrowth of algae, contributing to the overall health of the reef ecosystem.
Many other butterflyfish are found in Hawaii’s coral reefs, and they are all spectacular: ornate butterflyfish, teardrop butterflyfish, milletseed butterflyfish, fourspot butterflyfish, yellow longnose butterflyfish and threadfin butterflyfish!
The Moorish idol is a captivating fish with a thin, disc-shaped body and striking black, white, and yellow coloration. It grows up to 9 inches and can be found in various reef habitats, including lagoons, channels and seaward reefs.
Moorish idols have a diverse diet that includes sponges, coral polyps, and small invertebrates. While their feeding habits may cause some impact on the reef, they also contribute to nutrient cycling and the ecological balance of the ecosystem.
Snorkel near the famous Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Oahu, as Moorish idols are commonly found there.
Parrotfish species exhibit a stunning array of colors and possess unique beak-like mouths. Parrotfish are large fish that can grow up to 4 feet (depending on species) and can be found in shallow reefs.
Parrotfish play a significant role in the reef ecosystem as they feed on algae and coral polyps. Their feeding activities contribute to the control of algae growth and the bioerosion process that helps break down coral skeletons, promoting new coral growth.
Snorkel around the breathtaking Molokai coastline, where you’ll likely encounter the strikingly colorful Bullethead parrotfish.
The Sergeant Major fish stands out with its black vertical stripes against a yellow body. It can be found near coral reefs, often forming schools.
Sergeant Majors have a diverse diet that includes small invertebrates, zooplankton, and algae. They serve as a critical link in the food chain, providing an important food source for larger predators.
Explore the waters of Lanai’s Hulopoe Bay, as it’s a popular spot to spot Sergeant Major fish.
The Bluefin Trevally is a sleek fish with a metallic blue coloration and a prominent dorsal fin. It is commonly found near coral reefs and rocky areas.
Bluefin Trevally are predatory fish, feeding on smaller fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. They help control the population of smaller reef-dwelling organisms and maintain the ecological balance of the coral reef ecosystem.
Snorkel off the coast of the Big Island’s Kona for a chance to see the majestic Bluefin Trevally in action.
Goatfish encompass various species that exhibit a range of colors and patterns. They inhabit sandy areas near coral reefs and seagrass beds.
Goatfish have a unique feeding behavior where they use their barbels to sift through the sand in search of invertebrates and small crustaceans. Their feeding activities help regulate the population of these organisms, contributing to the overall health of the reef ecosystem.
Snorkel around the coral reefs of Molokai’s Kaunakakai Harbor, where you may come across Yellowfin goatfish.
Wrasse species display a wide variety of colors and patterns, making them a vibrant presence in coral reef ecosystems. They can be found near coral reefs, often darting in and out of crevices and rocky areas.
Wrasse have diverse diets, including small invertebrates, crustaceans, and fish eggs. They contribute to the balance of the reef ecosystem by controlling the population of these organisms.
The wrasse family includes many other amazingly beautiful fish including the bird wrasse, flame wrasse, saddle wrasse and dragon wrasse!
While snorkeling off the coast of Kauai’s Poipu Beach, keep an eye out for the vibrant Hawaiian cleaner wrasse.
The Bluestripe Snapper is a yellow fish with horizontal blue stripes and a forked tail. It grows up to 14 inches and inhabits the clear lagoons and seaward reefs.
It feeds on plankton, small crustaceans and fish larvae.
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Endemic and Rare Hawaiian Fish Species
Hawaii is not only home to a variety of common fish species but also harbors a collection of endemic and rare fish species found nowhere else on Earth. Spotting some of these during a snorkeling trip is simply incredible!
The bandit angelfish is a striking fish with a black mask-like pattern covering its eyes. Spotting this elusive fish while snorkeling can be a rare and thrilling experience.
The Hawaiian dascyllus, also known as the endemic Hawaiian domino, showcases an eye-catching contrast of black and white coloration.
It often forms schools around coral formations, adding a lively touch to the underwater landscape.
Hawaiian Hogfish (Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse)
The Hawaiian hogfish, also known as the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, displays vibrant red and orange coloration.
It is typically found near coral reefs, using its elongated snout to remove parasites from other fish’s bodies.
The Achilles tang is a rare and beautiful fish with a vibrant orange body and a striking black and white pattern on its tail. It is highly sought after by snorkelers and divers due to its captivating coloration.
Venture to the waters around the Big Island’s Captain Cook Monument, where you may be fortunate enough to encounter the magnificent Achilles Tang.
Hawaiian Whitespotted Toby
The Hawaiian whitespotted toby is a small, charismatic fish adorned with white spots on its black body.
It has a comical appearance, making it a delight to encounter while snorkeling.
The Hawaiian squirrelfish showcases an eye-catching blend of red and silver colors, with its large eyes giving it a distinct look.
It grows up to 10 inches and is often found hiding in caves, ledges and crevices or among coral reefs during the day and becomes more active at night.
The Hawaiian bigeye is a mesmerizing fish with large eyes and a silvery body. It is known for its nocturnal behavior and can often be seen hunting for food under the cover of darkness.
The Hawaiian lizardfish is an intriguing fish with a slender body and a long, lizard-like head.
It is an ambush predator that lies in wait, ready to snatch up passing prey.
Other Marine Life Encounters While Hawaiian Fish Snorkeling
The coral reefs of Hawaii are not only home to a tropical reef fish and invertebrates but also host all kinds of other marine life. From graceful manta rays to elusive octopuses, these marine creatures add another layer of wonder to the already mesmerizing underwater realm.
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
Hawaiian green sea turtles, known as “honu” in Hawaiian, are a beloved symbol of Hawaii’s marine life. These gentle creatures can often be spotted gracefully gliding through the water, feeding on seagrass and algae.
Snorkel at the Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, where encounters with these majestic sea turtles are almost guaranteed. It’s a truly magical experience to witness them up close.
Manta rays are magnificent creatures that glide gracefully through the water, captivating snorkelers and divers alike. They play a vital role in the coral reef ecosystem by acting as cleaners.
They visit cleaning stations where small fish remove parasites and dead skin from their bodies, maintaining their health and vitality.
Eels are fascinating and often misunderstood inhabitants of the coral reefs. They are known for their elongated bodies and snake-like movements, lurking within crevices and coral formations.
Eels contribute to the reef ecosystem by controlling the population of small fish and invertebrates, helping to maintain a balance in the food chain.
Keep an eye out for the elusive and mesmerizing eels while snorkeling in Maui’s Molokini Crater, as they occasionally venture out of their hiding spots to display their unique beauty.
Octopuses are intelligent and masterful creatures that can change their skin color and texture, making them masters of disguise. They have remarkable problem-solving abilities and can use their tentacles to navigate the coral reefs with precision.
Octopuses contribute to the coral reef ecosystem by preying on small organisms and helping to control their populations.
Search for octopuses among the nooks and crannies of the coral reef at Maui’s Black Rock, as they showcase their remarkable adaptive capabilities.
Sharks are powerful and awe-inspiring creatures that roam the waters around the coral reefs. They are apex predators, playing a crucial role in the regulation of the reef ecosystem by controlling the populations of other fish species.
Embark on a shark dive adventure off the coast of Haleiwa, Oahu, where you can observe these majestic creatures up close while respecting their natural behavior.
7 Best Places for Hawaiian Fish Snorkeling
Hawaii’s warm waters and vibrant coral reefs make it a paradise for snorkelers. While you can snorkel practically anywhere in Hawaii, we highlight the top seven snorkeling spots we love!
From the iconic Hanauma Bay in Oahu to the stunning Molokini Crater in Maui, these snorkeling destinations showcase the remarkable biodiversity of Hawaii’s coral reefs.
Hanauma Bay, Oahu
Hanauma Bay, located on the southeast coast of Oahu, is a renowned snorkeling destination known for its stunning beauty and rich marine life. The bay itself is a volcanic crater that has formed a crescent-shaped, sheltered bay with calm and clear waters.
Snorkelers can expect to encounter a variety of rare tropical fish, including the vibrant yellow tangs, ornate butterflyfish, and the elusive Moorish idol. Keep an eye out for the Hawaiian green sea turtles that frequent the bay, gliding gracefully among the coral formations.
Molokini Crater, Maui
Located just off the coast of Maui, Molokini Crater is a partially submerged volcanic crater that offers an exceptional snorkeling experience. The crescent-shaped crater provides a sheltered haven for diverse marine life.
Snorkelers exploring Molokini can witness the vibrant colors of the Hawaiian sergeant majors, the dazzling raccoon butterflyfish, and the striking flame angelfish.
Keep your gaze towards the deeper waters, as you might be lucky enough to spot the magnificent manta rays gracefully gliding by.
Check out these tours from Maui to Molokini Crater:
We took this Maui snorkeling tour and had a wonderful experience. I suggest this tour to you if you want less crowded experience (< 30 people) with food and an open bar!
Kealakekua Bay, Big Island
Nestled on the Kona coast of the Big Island, Kealakekua Bay is a marine sanctuary teeming with tropical fish and vibrant coral formations.
Snorkelers are treated to an abundance of rare species such as the striking bandit angelfish, the stunning Achilles tang, and the beautiful masked angelfish.
Keep an eye out for the colorful parrotfish that contribute to the coral reef’s ecosystem through their grazing activities, helping to maintain its health and balance.
Na Pali Coast, Kauai
The Na Pali Coast on the island of Kauai offers a snorkeling experience surrounded by dramatic cliffs and breathtaking scenery.
Snorkelers can explore the vibrant underwater world of Tunnels Beach, where rare tropical fish abound. Look for the delightful Moorish idol, the yellow-masked angelfish, and the fascinating dragon wrasse.
Keep your eyes peeled for the vibrant Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, known for its symbiotic cleaning behavior with other fish species.
Kahalu’u Beach Park, Big Island
Kahalu’u Beach Park, located near Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, is a popular snorkeling spot known for its calm and shallow waters.
Snorkelers can observe a variety of rare tropical fish species, including the stunning ornate wrasse, the vibrant yellowfin surgeonfish, and the eye-catching yellow trumpetfish.
Don’t forget to look out for the elusive and well-camouflaged leaf scorpionfish, blending seamlessly with its surroundings.
Poipu Beach Park, Kauai
Poipu Beach Park, situated on the sunny south shore of Kauai, offers excellent snorkeling opportunities in a picturesque setting.
Snorkelers can discover a plethora of rare tropical fish species, such as the magnificent raccoon butterflyfish, the mesmerizing threadfin butterflyfish, and the distinctive forceps butterflyfish.
Keep an eye out for the vibrant peacock grouper, a predatory fish that plays an important role in maintaining the balance of the reef ecosystem.
Lanai’s Manele Bay, Lanai
Manele Bay, located on the island of Lanai, is a hidden gem for snorkelers seeking tranquility and abundant marine life.
Snorkelers can spot rare tropical fish species, including the striking orange-spine unicornfish, the colorful blue-banded surgeonfish, and the eye-catching flame wrasse.
Be on the lookout for the elusive and captivating spotted boxfish, known for its unique shape and vibrant patterns.
Beneath the Surface: The Enchanting World of Hawaii’s Coral Reefs
Hawaiian fish snorkeling is a remarkable experience! With its vibrant coral reefs teeming with colorful tropical fish and many rare species, Hawaii offers an unparalleled snorkeling experience.
Let the vibrant colors, the rhythmic movements, and the harmony of the delicate coral reef ecosystem captivate your senses and leave you with memories that will last a lifetime.
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