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Snorkeling with with schools of colorful tropical fish and green sea turtles is a top goal of nearly every Hawaii vacationer. One of the smartest ways to prepare for snorkeling in Hawaii is to learn about the fish you’re likely to see in the ocean.
It’s equally important to reserve custom-fit, “dry-mouth” snorkels in advance of your trip. Quality snorkels will keep water out of your mouth automatically and provide superior safety and comfort in the water.
Prepare for your Hawaii trip in advance and create memories that will last a lifetime.
A member of the Chaetodontidae family of reef fish, the Ornate Butterfly is widely considered one of the most attractive fish in the Hawaiian waters. You can easily recognize the Ornate Butterfly by the six orange diagonal stripes on either side of its body. Ornate Butterflys can grow up to eight inches but most are five to six inches in length.
This fish’s distinctive markings include magnificent black and yellow bars on its face and a shiny gray patch on its forehead.
Ornate Butterfly Fish feed on coral polyps so natural coral reefs are the most favorable spot to catch a glimpse of this fish while snorkeling.
Threadfin Butterfly is one of the most commonly recognizeable butterfly fish, especially for saltwater tank enthusiasts. This beautiful multicolor fish can be found in outer reef slopes in Hawaii, Indonesia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Tonga.
Threadfins are harder to spot than Ornate Butterfly Fish because they tend to hide behind rocks and coral. You’ll find a distinctive black “eyespot” on the Threadfin’s dorsal fin in Hawaii but this circular marking is missing on Threadfins native to The Red Sea.
With a snout resembling needle-nose plier, the Yellow Longnose Butterfly is easily able to pick food from rock crevices and craggy coral reef.
Properly called the “Forcipiger Flavissimus” this bright yellow fish is found alone or in schools in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Yellow Longnose Butterfly is carnivorous and feeds on the tube feet of echinoderms, polychaete tentacles, the pedicellaria (the jaw-like structure) of sea urchins, fish eggs, small crustaceans and hydroids.
This fish’s name originates from the black patches around its eyes which resemble those of a land Raccoon. Found most commonly in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Atlantic, the Raccoon Butterfly fish is nocturnal and travels in pairs or in small schools.
The Raccoon Butterfly fish has a yellowish-orange complexion and its upper half is significantly darker than its bottom half.
Reaching lengths of up to 8 inches in adulthood, Raccoon Butterfly Fish eat tubeworm tentacles, nudibranchs and other benthic invertebrates. While snorkeling you might also catch them munching on algae or coral polyps.
Also known as a “One Spot Butterfly”, this fish features black teardrop and streak on the upper right side of its body. A member of the Chaetodontidae family, the Tear Drop Butterfly’s unique physical markings make it a favorite among snorkelers and fish enthusiasts.
The majority of the Teardrop Butterfly’s body is white, transitioning to yellow on its upper body. Notice the solid black bar that runs directly behind the eyes.
Teardrop Butterfly Fish can be found at depths from 3 feet to 180 feet.
The Bluestripe Butterfly Fish is a rare species, found only in the Hawaiian Islands. Recent discoveries have found Bluestripes living at great depths—up to 600 feet! Bluestripe Butterfly fish are perhaps the most recognizable reef fish because of their 8 diagonal bright blue stripes that run diagonally across their body.
Bluestripe Butterfly fish are drawn to patches of sand on the smooth ocean floor between boulders and coral. While snorkeling in Hawaii, you’ll often find these fish in shallow reef and near rocky shorelines.
The Fourspot Butterfly Fish can reach up to 7 inches in length but can be difficult to observe as it tends to dart from place to place in a skittish fashion. The fish’s name derives from two white spots on the upper half of its body and two small black dots toward its rear.
The Fourspot’s tail is yellow with white where the tail and body meet. A white streak runs along its dorsal fin.
This species of butterfly fish feeds on small polyped stony corals, particularly Pocillopora.
As its name suggests, the Rainbow Butterfly Fish may be the most colorful fish of the butterfly family. A favorite of snorkelers in Hawaii, this incredibly beautiful fish can be found at depths shallower than 65 feet.
The front half of the Rainbow Butterfly is orange and yellow but fades to a blueish purple on its back and at its dorsal fin. An attractive striped pattern extends horizontally along its body. While every color of the rainbow may not represented in the Rainbow Butterfly Fish, it may be the closest Hawaii’s sea life has to offer.
This beautiful yellow fish has small black specks on its sides that also form vertical stripes. A striking black bar shadows its eyes and there’s also a distinctive black section the area where its tail fin meets its body.
The Lemon Butterfly fish goes by a few monikers including Milletseed Butterfly Fish and Millet Butterfly Fish.
Potter’s Angelfish, also known as Potter’s Pygmy Angelfish, is native specifically to the Hawaiian Islands. This radiant fish is a fantastic orange with pale blue highlights. The darkest areas of the fish are more pronounced in males than in females, making them easy to distinguish in the ocean. The caudal portions of the dorsal and rear bottom fins are a dark blue-black.
Potter’s Angelfish live in pairs or harems of a male and several females, often at depths of between 10-150 feet. They also spend time at “cleaning stations” where they eat algae from the shells of green sea turtles and the bodies of other larger fish.
Averaging a whopping 14 inches length, the Yellowtail Wrass has the strength to push rocks and coral over to find food beneath. Featuring two prominent teeth in the front of the upper and lower jaw, the Lolo eats snails, hermit crabs, crabs, shrimps, mollusks and sea urchins.
Yellowtail Wrasse bury themselves in sand at night. On Maui they are commonly found at Coral Gardens of the west side of the island.
Saddle Wrasse (Hinalea Lauwili)
The Saddle Wrasse is the most abundant reef fish in the Hawaiian Islands. It’s name is inspired by the red saddle visible behind its pectoral fin. Incredibly, this fish has the ability to change sexes and color patterns during its life!
There are 43 different fish in the Wrasse family and 13 of these are native to Hawaiian waters. Snorkelers will often find Saddle Wrasse following behind them in the ocean. It’s believed that the fish is mistakingly searching for feeding opportunities in the disturbances brought by snorkelers motions.
The head of the Ornate Wrasse is an earthy red and lined phosphorescent green stripes. Its belly is blue with scales marked by vertical, crescent-shaped stripes. An easy way to identify the Ornate Wrasse is to look for black spots behind the eyes.
Like other Wrasse, Ornate Wrasse bury themselves in the sand during sleep and when they feel threatened by predators. These fish average 7 inches in length and feed on small crustaceans and invertebrates.
Juvenile Yellow-tail Wrasse (Lolo)
Featuring three or four white spots on its bright red body, the Yellow-Tail Wrasse is one of the most easily identifiable fish in Hawaiian waters.
When female Wrasse are overrepresented in a group they will often change sex to become male. The Wrasse’s ability to change sex is one reason why it such a common reef fish.
The dorsal fin of the Pennant fish extends beyond its body, giving it the appearance of having an extra tail. These fish are black and white with yellow tails and bottom fins.
The Pennant fish is incredible social, often found in schools of 30 or more fish. They survive off plankton but often spend their days eating algae from the backs of larger fish or turtles.
The Moorish Idol has a crescent shaped body with an extended dorsal fin similar to the Pennant Fish. Its distinct black and white markings make the Moorish Idol a popular option for aquariums. Moorish Idols can grow up to 10 inches in length and the older they get the less prominent their dorsal fin becomes.
In adulthood, this fish can often be found alone. When they are younger they tend to hang out in pairs or in small schools. Moorish Idols enjoy shallow water but can also be found at depths of close to 600 feet.
The Hawaiian Rainbow Cleaner Wrasse can often be found in pairs at “cleaner stations” nourishing themselves from algae found on the backs of other fish and turtles.
Similar to other reef fish, the Rainbow Cleaner can change sex to adapt to more favorable mating conditions. This fish is relatively small, maxing out in full maturity at fewer than 5 inches in length. Because of its beautiful black stripe lined by a vibrant pink, the colorful Rainbow Cleaner Wrasse is easy to spot in the ocean.
Bird Wrasse (Hinalea I Iwi)
The Bird Wrasse is the arguably the easiest fish to identify in Hawaiian waters due to its long, beak-like snout. The Bird Wrasse uses its protruding snout to capture prey and break it into small pieces. The Females are a brownish black while males are variations of green.
The Bird Wrasse become 12 inches in length and has the ability to change sexes to adapt to its breeding environment. Single males will routinely mate with a harem of females, and females may become male to build a harem of their own.
The state fish of Hawaii, natively named Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa is a mouthful to say! Its common name, Rectangular Triggerfish, is a lot easier to pronounce, but also much less fun.
Over 40 species of Triggerfish inhabit tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. Averaging 8 to 20 inches in length, the Rectangular Triggerfish makes a snorting sound similar to a pig when it is cornered or under stress. Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa uses this vocalization to warn other fish of impeding danger. It can also erect its dorsal spines into the shape of a “trigger” when it feels threatened.
Common to the Indo-Pacific region which includes Hawaii, the Picasso Triggerfish has many various names including Lagoon Triggerfish, Blackbar Triggerfish, Picassofish and the Jamal Triggerfish.
The Picasso Triggerfish can fairly be aggressive, particularly when protecting eggs during mating season when males and females will take turns protecting offspring. It’s not uncommon for the Picasso Triggerfish to chase a snorkeler as a protective gesture, however, because the fish in fewer than 12 inches in length it isn’t dangerous.
The White-Spotted Damsel is popular for aquariums because the distinctive single white spot on both sides of its body is highly attractive to onlookers.
Large schools of White-Spotted Damsels will move together in unison, giving the impression of an elevator moving up and down. In Hawaii you will often find schools of the young Damsels at the tops of coral heads.
Hogfish (‘A ‘Awa)
The Hogfish uses its long snout to search for crustaceans in the sandy ocean floor. It’s name comes from the comparison to a hog rooting for food in the mud.
The Hogfish is part of the Wrasse family which can change genders in order to adapt to favorable breading circumstances.
The Pinktail Triggerfish can grow to 16 inches in length, making it one of the largest triggerfish in the species. Like other triggerfish, the Pinktail will employ unique vocalizations when threatened or agitated. This relatively aggressive fish will lash out at other Pinktail Triggerfish when protecting unhatched eggs during mating season.
Portuguese Man-O- War (Pololia and Pa’i Malau)
The Portuguese Man-O- War, which looks similar to a jellyfish, is actually made up of multiple organisms called zooids. Each of these Zooids has individual functions that together make up a collective organisms which are physiologically incapable of independent survival.
The Portuguese Man-O-War navigates on trade winds through the nearshore areas of the Hawaiian islands. The Portuguese Man-O- War has venomous tentacles can deliver a powerful sting while in the ocean or on shore. It is rare to find a single Portuguese Man-O- War; if you spot one, there are likely more around.
Fortunately, it is uncommon for snorkelers on Maui to be stung by a Portuguese Man-O-War.
The Flying Fish can travel in the air for distances of up to 1300 ft and periods of up to 40 seconds. Sailors and watermen throughout Hawaii marvel at the Flying Fish’s ability to avoid sea bond predators, the Mahi Mahi, Dolphin, Ahi (tuna) and Billfish.
On occasions people have witnessed flying fish escape an underwater predator, only to be eaten by an agile sea bird. If you happen to board a snorkel tour or sunset sail in Maui your chances of seeing a flying fish are pretty high.
Green Sea Turtles are found throughout the Hawaiian Islands and in many of the world’s tropical ocean waters. Itinerate travelers, Green Sea Turtles have been known to travel up to1600 miles to find their nesting grounds.
Once endangered, Green Sea Turtle populations have made a significant comeback in recent years as a result of conservation efforts..
Maui is home to some of the largest nesting grounds for Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii. For visitors to Maui and locals alike, snorkeling with docile turtles is one of the great joys of the island.
The Ghost Crab digs in the sand to create underground chambers to escape the mid-day sunshine in Hawaii. Ghost Crabs tend to be more active at night, feeding on a wide variety of debris and the occasional turtle hatchling.
Although the Ghost Crab spends a fair amount of time on shore, they always return to the ocean to lay eggs. You’ll often catch a glimpse of the Ghost Crab scurrying across the sand at a surprisingly quick pace for its relatively small size.
Sea Lettuce is an edible green algae often found on the rocky coastlines of the Hawaiian islands and throughout the world’s oceans. Many cultures consume Sea Lettuce as a part of their regular diet. Sea Lettuce is high in soluble fiber, protein, a diverse range of vitamins and an excellent source of iron.
The Hawaiian Rock Boring Sea Urchin makes its home beneath rocks or corals heads along the coast of the Hawaiian islands. .
Stepping on a Rock Boring Sea Urchin will result in a sting that will swell. Coral reef is alive and walking or standing on it can kill the living organism. Urchins provide another disincentive for this unwelcome behavior.
Like the Rock Boring Sea Urchin, Slate Pencil Sea Urchin also has the ability to deal a powerful sting.
Recently, scientists have begun to place these urchins on coral reef where invasive species of algae are present. The urchins will feed off the algae, restoring balance to the ecosystem.
Unlike the most common species of lobsters, Spiny Lobsters do not have large claws. There are 3 species of Spiny lobster found in Hawaii and they are often found in the same areas.
Although Spiny lobsters have been a delicacy in Hawaii for a long time, declining numbers have recently made them off-limits for commercial fishing. The only way to dine on a spiny lobster is to catch one with your hands.
Lobster are rarely found during the day as they retreat to small caves found in reefs and rocking outcroppings. The Spiny lobster emerges at night to hunt and to scavenge.
Slipper Lobster (Ula-papapa)
Featuring two large intinia the protrude forward from its face, the Slippery Lobster is easy to recognize. Like their cousins the Spiny lobster, Slipper Lobsters do not have large claws. Like all lobsters, the Slipper lobster is a scavenger. There barely anything this “insect of the ocean” won’t eat.
The Slipper lobster averages around 7 inches in length in Hawaii but has cousins in other parts of the world that grow up to 20 inches. Unlike other lobster that tend to hide in caves or in cracks of the reef, The Slipper Lobster spends more time in the open. However, their flat shape and unique coloration make the Slipper Lobster difficult to see.
The Spanish Dancer is a sea slug that propels itself through the water when threatened or agitated. The flowing “skirts” of this Nudibranch are said to look like the dress of a Flamenco Dancer: thus the name: Spanish Dancer.
Most sea slugs are smaller than an inch in length but The Hawaiian Spanish dancer can reach to 15 inches, making it the largest of its species in the world. “Nudies” differ from other sea slugs in that they drop their hard shell when they reach adulthood.
Two tiny shrimp often live in its gills of the Spanish Dancer. The Shrimp eat tiny morsels of leftover food and the sea slug benefits cleaning the sea slug’s gills.
The Hawaiian Feather duster worm lives on rocks and on hard surfaces of sea floors in tidal zones. The worm uses sand, and other available supplies to create a rock-like undercarriage, bound together by self-secreted calcium carbonate. When threatened, The Feather Duster Worm quickly recoils into its stiff, protective shell base.
The Feather duster worm can reach up 7 inches in diameter. In certain cases, when severely bothered, worm will discard its “fan” and regrow another, similar to a lizard sacrificing its tail.
The White Mouth Eel—a member of the Moray eel family of which there are about 200 species—lacks pectoral and pelvic fins, giving it the appearance of a large snake. Reaching lengths of 4 feet in the Hawaiian waters, Eels can grow much longer in other areas of the world—some as large as13 feet at weights of 70 lbs.
On occasion Moray Eel will hunt in tandem with the Roving Coral Grouper. This pairing is the only known cooperative hunting by any species of fish.
The Morey’s ability to slither through small cracks is an advantage to the Grouper who will standby to capture the startled pry. The Moray Eel is not outwardly aggressive toward humans but will occasionally lash out in self defense. Their extremely sharp teeth and lighting fast jaws make them dangerous when provoked.
Comprising 35% of the coral mass of the entire planet, Antler Coral are one of the most common organism in the ocean. Like other branching corals, Antler Coral derives its name from its shape.
Though very hardy in the ocean compared to other coral, Wild Antler Coral doesn’t do well in aquarium setting.
One of the largest species of fish in the ocean (there are nearly 200 living varieties of living Goby), the adorable Goby fish spends most of its time hanging around Wire Coral.
Mostly passive feeders, the Wire Coral Goby will wait for for small invertebrates and zooplankton to float before consuming them.
Wire Coral tend to grow in spiraling ringlets along rocky outcroppings or ledges or in deep waters from the bottom of the ocean floor.
Reaching only 4 ft. in length, which is much smaller than some species of coral, Wire Coral is one of the fastest growing coral in the sea.
This sizable species of coral derives its name from its orange coloration and is very fragile.
Orange Tube Coral grow on slopes at the edge of the large reef systems. Unlike many other coral, Orange Tube Coral does not contain symbiotic algae. All of this coral’s nutrients must be found in its surrounding environment.
Finger Coral is a species of Stony Coral called Porites. Known for its finger-like growths, this coral is sensitive to its environment and difficult to grow in the aquarium trade.
Often inhabited by the Christmas Tree Worm, which bores inside the coral, these 2 organisms exist in a symbiotic relationship within the larger ecosystem.
The Crown of the Thorns is one of the largest multi-armed starfish in the ocean. Found throughout the Indo-Pacific as well as east Africa and the west coast of Central America, The Crowns of Thorns averages 9 to 14 inches in circumference and can grow up to 21 arms.
Featuring venomous spins on its upper surface, The Crown of Thorn often preys on hard stony coral (polyps).
The Black Sea Cucumber, also known as the Holothuria Atra or Lolly Fish are black in color and are shaped like a cucumber or a sausage.
The average Black Sea Cucumber is 9 inches long but in some cases it can grow to 24 inches.
Capable of digesting biofilm on sand, The Black Sea Cucumber “cleans the sea floor”, finding food in ocean sediment.
A well-known member of the flatfish family, The Hawaiian name for the founder is Pak’i’i.
The eyes of a juvenile flounder are like a regular fish (on either side of its body), but as the fish matures, one eye will slowly drift to the other side of its head! Most adult flounders have 2 eyes facing upward in the same direction.
The Flounder’s flat, oval body shape is evolved to avoid predators.
One of the smartest creatures living in the ocean, Octopi live in caves and rock outcroppings along the reef as well as at great ocean depths.
The Hawaiian name for Octopus is He’e.
Octopi have a variety of defense mechanisms, including the ability to change color and disperse ink when threatened. Excellent adapters, Octopi have also demonstrated advanced cognitive abilities in scientific studies.
Traditionally, Hawaiians spear-fish for Octopi. A common way to prepare octopus in Hawaii is boiled, cut into small pieces, and served with soy sauce, chili peppers and spices. Locals refer to this dish as “Octopus Taco”.
Naturally camouflaged, The Lizard Fish’s brownish color blends well with the sandy ocean floor. Known in Hawaii as ‘Ulae, 14 of the 50 species of Lizard Fish can be found on the islands.
Crafty hunters, the Lizard Fish will bury itself into the sand with its eyes exposed. Hidden from sight, the Ulae will attack its prey at distances of up to 6 ft.
The Lizard Fish’s tongue is lined with sharp teeth making it a very effective ocean predator.
Better known as Starfish the name “Sea Star” has recently been adopted to better reflect that these creatures are not fish. In actuality, Sea Stars are related to Sea Cucumbers and Urchins.
Throughout the world’s oceans there at least 1,800 species of Sea Stars and 20 thrive in Hawaiian waters.
Sea stars are both predators and scavengers. With mouths at the bottoms of their bodies they use their arms to crawl over coral and along ocean floor.
Sea Stars can reproduce from severed limbs and expel their stomachs from their bodies to catch food.