There’s an impressive number of fish and other sea creatures in the Hawaiian shore waters. Of the multitude of creatures, which ones are the most fascinating that you are likely to spot while snorkeling Hawaii? Here are some of the must-see Hawaiian fish and marine creatures (with names and pictures) for your next snorkeling adventure in the Aloha State!
With its oval-shaped, all-yellow body, the Yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens) is one of the most easily recognizable Hawaiian reef fish. This species has a large Pacific distribution, but the Hawaiian Islands are the only place where they are very common at shallow depths.
Yellow tangs are usually seen in large schools, grazing on algae that grows over the seabed. It is almost guaranteed that you’ll see some while snorkeling in Hawaii, especially on the coral reefs that fringe the Kona Coast, like Two Step or Kahalu’u Bay.
The Hawaiian Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), widely called by its cute Hawaiian name of “honu,” is by far the most common sea turtle species in Hawaii. This creature is also one of the most important symbols of Hawaiian culture.
Honu is found throughout the Hawaiian Chain, both in and outside the water. As a matter of fact, Hawaii is the only place in the world where sea turtles can be seen basking in the sun on select beaches.
The Hawaiian Green sea turtle belongs to the Green sea turtle species, but the Hawaiian populations are genetically distinct. More than 90% of the Hawaiian Green sea turtles nest in French Frigate Shoals, an approximately 650 mile swim from the main islands.
The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus) is a species that only exists in Hawaii’s coastal waters. Despite its small size (4 inches/9 cm only), it is a very remarkable fish on the reef. The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse is highly colored with its body covered in neons of gold, blues, and purples.
This fish forms a symbiotic relationship with larger reef fish. The cleaner wrasse will remove parasites present on the larger fishes’ skin, gills, and even inside their mouths. It usually sets up “cleaning stations” near large coral outcrops that larger fish can go to to get cleaned.
The Trumpetfish (Aulostomus chinensis) is a funny-looking fish that is easy to spot in the shallow reefs throughout the archipelago. It is easy to identify by its slender, elongated body and its tubular snout. Slowly swimming or floating, the trumpetfish is a solitary hunter and ambusher of smaller fish and invertebrates.
The Trumpetfish has variable coloration, the most common being brown (with or without pale bands), grey-blue, greenish and bright yellow. The fish can even change its color to match its surroundings.
Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris), a relatively small species of dolphin known for being very playful, are the most common Hawaiian dolphin. A spinner dolphin is likely the only type of dolphin you will see when you snorkel in Hawaii. Spinner dolphins feed at night offshore and usually come early in the morning to the shallow bays and near-shore waters to rest and socialize.
The best Hawaiian locations to snorkel with Spinner dolphins are the Kona Coast of the Big Island (in particular Two Step snorkeling spot) and the Leeward Coast of Oahu, between Waianae Bay and Electric Beach (Kapolei). Since 2021, a new rule prohibits snorkelers and embarkations from approaching within 50 yards of pods of dolphins.
The Longnose butterflyfish (Forcipiger flavissimus) is an extremely beautiful and colorful fish that likes to hang out around shallow reefs. It has a distinctive elongated jaw, making it one of the most easily recognizable Hawaiian reef fish.
Its long, pointed snout allows for preying on small invertebrates that are found in coral and rock cracks. The Longnose butterflyfish is commonly found in pairs, and that pairing will last for life.
The Reef triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), aka the Rectangular triggerfish, is one of the about 30 species of Triggerfish found in the tropical seas. Not only is the Reef triggerfish the State Fish of Hawaii, but it also has a unique Hawaiian name, humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa. You can use its shortened name, humuhumu, which means “triggerfish with a snout like a pig.”
You will easily identify it from its polygonal-shaped body covered with colorful geometric patterns. The Reef triggerfish is found primarily at shallow depths, making it a very common sight for snorkelers at all Hawaiian snorkeling locations.
The only tropical seal species, the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) is endemic to the Hawaii and Johnston Atoll. Its Hawaiian name, ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, literally means “dog running in the rough seas.”
On the main islands, the best place to see monk seals while snorkeling is Kauai. Here, the seals can be seen along the North Shore, particularly in Tunnels Beach and Kee Beach. You can see them as well as in Poipu Beach and Kiahuna Beach on the Southern Coast. With a population of only about 1,500, the Hawaiian monk seal is an endangered species that is strictly protected in the United States.
The Red pencil urchin (Heterocentrotus mamillatus), which ranges throughout the Pacific, is found all over shallow Hawaiian coral reefs. They gather by dozens at some locations, such as Ahihi Kinau, Maui.
These urchins have thick, blunt-ended spines, making them harmless to humans. It is in Hawaii that the most brightly colored Red pencil urchins are found. In this area they come in colors that vary from bright red, to reddish, purple, and brown to pink.
There are 14 species of moray eels that are native to the Hawaiian Chain. Among them, the Guineafowl moray (Gymnothorax meleagris), also known as the Whitemouth moray or the Turkey moray, is one of the easiest to spot at snorkeling depths.
As with all moray eels, they are seen mostly during the day within reef holes and crevices. The eel is recognized by its blackish body covered in tiny white spots with the its inside of its mouth being white. The Guineafowl moray is not aggressive if unprovoked.
The Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus) is a tropical fish that you’ll most likely see when you snorkel in Hawaii. It is a common sight in the coastal waters of all the islands, from depths as shallow as 3 feet. The Moorish Idol is recognized by its bands of black and yellow-white, and by its very long white dorsal fin.
The Moorish Idol is sometimes mistaken for the Pennant coralfish, a less common inhabitant of the Hawaiian waters. The Moorish Idol can be observed alone, in small groups, and occasionally in larger schools.
The Ornate butterflyfish (Chaetodon ornatissimus), also known by its Hawaiian name of kikakapu, is one of several species of butterflyfish found in Hawaii. It has a striking white body adorned with orange oblique bands. It eyes are hidden behind two yellow-edged black bars.
Like most butterflyfishes, it often travels in pairs, feeding on stony coral polyps. The Ornate butterflyfish can be seen at almost any reef snorkeling location in the Hawaiian archipelago.
Get ready for your next Hawaii snorkeling trip!
Our guide to the best snorkeling spots (with underwater pictures and snorkel map) in Oahu
Our guide to the best snorkeling spots (with underwater pictures and snorkel map) in Maui
Our guide to the best snorkeling spots (with underwater pictures and snorkel map) in Big Island
Our guide to the best snorkeling spots (with underwater pictures and snorkel map) in Kauai
Snorkeling Report’s Fish ID Guide
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