We believe that a knowledge and appreciation of reef fishes will help make your underwater experience much exciting and enjoyable. In addition, learning about sea creatures is certainly the best way to create passionate present and future stewards of the protection of the oceans. On Snorkeling Report, you can identify species from 11 iconic fish families and starfish on our Fish ID Guide page. You can contribute to enrich this page by sending us pictures of species not yet identified.
Angelfish are among the most iconic of the coral reef fishes. With their bright colors, captivating patterns and flat, tall in structure body, they surely are the most majestic residents of the reef. Certain species can reach a length of 60cm, while the smallest do not exceed 15cm. Most of juvenile angelfish has a drastically different color pattern than the adult. For example, juveniles’ emperor angelfish are dark blue with electric blue and white rings, while adults have bright yellow and blue horizontal stripes, with a dark mask covering the eyes. Some angelfish species are noted to be inquisitive and curious towards snorkelers.
Over 80 species of angelfish are found in the Caribbean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, most of them with very specific distribution areas. French angelfish is the most abundant in the Caribbean, while emperor angelfish and royal angelfish are commonly seen while snorkeling the Indian and western Pacific Ocean. The King angelfish occurs on the eastern Pacific Ocean, from the Gulf of California to coastal Peru, including the Galápagos Islands.
Dreaming about encountering angelfish in the wild? Check our top10 snorkeling spots to see angelfish!
Clownfish -or anemonefish- are certainly the most popular of reef fish. They belong to the damselfish family, and are known for their ability to live among the tentacles of sea anemones. Clownfish color varies from orange, red, pink, and even yellow or black, with white bars or stripes on their bodies, depending on the species. Colorful, they are wonderfully photogenic. Watching a clownfish swimming up and down and “playing” in its sea anemone is one of the most captivating sights of a coral reef life.
The most famous clownfish in popular culture is the ocellaris clownfish, the main character from the 2003 animated film Finding Nemo, but the clownfish family comprises nearly 30 other different species. Clownfish are found in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the western Pacific Ocean. They are totally absent in the Caribbean and Atlantic regions, as well as in the eastern Pacific Ocean (including the Hawaiian Islands). Clark’s anemonefish is the most widely distributed clownfish, present from eastern Africa to the Western Pacific, while the ocellaris clownfish is spread from the west coast of Thailand to eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands. Some other species have very restricted distribution areas, such as the Oman anemonefish, only found on the Arabian Sea coast of Oman, and the Mauritian anemonefish, endemic to Mauritius and Réunion. Only one species (the Red Sea clownfish) inhabits the Red Sea.
Love clownfish? Check our top10 snorkeling spots to see clownfish in the wild!
Butterflyfish are some of the most beautiful and colored reef fish. They are among the most common sights on reefs throughout the world, especially at low depth. The 120 butterflyfish species (which also comprises bannerfish) are mainly found on shallow reefs in the tropical Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. They are well known for their brightly colored body and elaborate patterns and markings. Many have dark bands and one or more large “eyespots” on their flanks that may serve to confuse predators, and a dark “mask” across their eyes. Butterflyfish are deep-bodied and thin fish, with a relatively long snout and a small mouth, allowing them to feed on a variety of small crustaceans and on coral polyps. Most of species does not exceed a 20cm (8 inches) length. Butterfly fish form mating pairs that they remain with for life.
The Indo-Pacific region is where most of butterflyfish species are concentrated, with approximately 50 different species found in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. 17 are found in Hawaii, including 3 endemic species: the bluestripe butterflyfish, the milletseed butterflyfish and the multiband butterflyfish. Only 5 butterflyfish species -not the most colorful- occur in the Caribbean, the most frequently spotted there being the banded and the foureye butterflyfish. 5 butterflyfish are endemic of the Red Sea, including the majestic masked butterflyfish.
Surgeonfish are named after the scalpel-like thin sharp blades located at the base of their tail. In case of danger, they draw those blades and use their tail to defend themselves. Though middle-sized (15 to 40 cm at most), they are some of the most colorful reef fish. They mostly feed on algae and play a crucial part in the reef ecosystem as they leave room for coral to grow. Surgeonfish can be observed alone, in small groups and even in impressive schools of hundreds of fish.
The most famous surgeonfish undoubtedly is the blue tang (or palette surgeonfish, paracanthurus hepatus). Kids and grown-ups know it as Dory, unforgettable yet forgetful sidekick in Pixar’s “Finding Nemo”. The best places to spot palette surgeonfish while snorkeling are the Western Indian Ocean (Zanzibar Island, Coromos, Madagascar and Seychelles) and the Australian Great Reef. You’re most likely to spot the convict surgeonfish with its black vertical stripes, very common from Eastern Africa to the Pacific area. In Hawaii, the yellow tang is unmissable, while the razor surgeonfish can be easily spotted in the eastern Pacific, including the Galápagos Islands. Only 3 surgeonfish species live in the Caribbean, including the Atlantic blue tang that can be seen in most spots.
Widespread throughout warm and temperate seas in the World, damselfish are small and generally colorful fish. They are very easy to observe: they often are the first fish you spot after diving. There are about 250 damselfish species, from which only 14 live in the Caribbean. These swift creatures especially appreciate coral reefs and rocky shores. Some species (notably adult domino damsel, dascyllus trimaculatus) can even be territorial and come “pinch” snorkelers getting too close to their den.
Sergeant majors are amongst the most commonly seen damselfish when snorkeling. Those friendly fish go by in groups of various sizes, sometimes just under the water surface. The Indo-Pacific sergeant (abudefduf vaigiensis) can be seen from Red Sea and East Africa to French Polynesia. The Pacific sergeant-major (abudefduf troschelii) can be spotted in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, while the Caribbean sergeant-major (abulefduf saxatilis) lives in the Western Atlantic Ocean. The green chromis (chromis viridis) is unmissable in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It gathers in huge schools of hundreds of fish, often dwelling around acropora corals. In the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean chromis (chromis chromis) can be seen in numerous spots. Other notorious damselfish are the whitetail dascyllus (dascyllus aruanus, living in most of the Indo-Pacific area), the beaugregory (pomacentrus leucostictus, endemic to the Caribbean) and the Garibaldi damselfish (hypsypops rubicundus, commonplace along the Californian coast).
Triggerfish are hard to confuse with other reef fish. Their massive diamond-shaped body is easy to identify, and their colorful geometric patterns make some of them emblematic in the tropical seas. There are 40 triggerfish species in the World. Some of them appreciate the lagoons shallow waters and are easy to see while snorkeling. Triggerfish are named after the erectile dorsal fin that they draw when threatened, but they are generally friendly and don’t hesitate to come close to swimmers. During mating season, triggerfish can get aggressive while keeping their nests and sometimes bite intruders, some of them being snorkelers. The titan triggerfish (balistoides viridescens, sometimes 70 cm long) is famous for its dreadful bites.
The most famous triggerfish undoubtedly is the lagoon triggerfish (or Picasso triggerfish). It is widespread in tropical seas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It can notably be seen in lagoons, even in shallow areas. It looks like its white and yellow stripes have been hand-painted onto its faded black body. One of its cousins, the reef triggerfish (rhinecanthus rectangulus), has been chosen as an emblem to the Hawaii State, where it is locally known as Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. But it’s not endemic to the archipelago: the reef triggerfish breeds from the Eastern African Coasts to French Polynesia. If we had to give an award to the most fanciful scales pattern, it would be to the clown triggerfish (balistoides conspicillum) with its white circles in contrast to a black body and its bright yellow lips. The Arabian picassofish (rhinecanthus assasi), with its fluorescent-blue rimmed eyes, can exclusively be seen in the Red Sea and only 6 triggerfish species live in the Caribbean Sea.
Pufferfish (Tetraodontidae) and porcupinefish (Diodontidae) are very easy to identify. They have the ability to “puff up” in a few seconds by swelling water if they are threatened or stressed. With this « balloon » shape, they appear much larger than they are, and are especially more difficult to bite for predators. Porcupinefish also have large external spines, making them looking like “spiny balloons” when inflated. Most of pufferfish species are also highly toxic: some parts of the fugu (species from the Takifugu genus), considered a delicacy in Japan, has enough poison to kill around thirty people. Most species grow to 20 to 50cm in length, but the stellar pufferfish can grow to up to 120cm.
Pufferfish and porcupinefish are easy to spot when snorkeling the rocky beds and coral reefs of tropical and subtropical seas, often at very shallow depths. Whitespotted puffer is common from the Red Sea to the Eastern Pacific, where it abounds on the rocky shores of Costa Rica. Guineafowl puffer, which is sometimes completely yellow, is also widely distributed on the reefs of the Indo-Pacific, for example in the lagoons of Reunion Island. If you snorkel in Egypt or Jordan, you will certainly encounter the masked pufferfish, endemic to the Red Sea. The long-spine porcupinefish (diodon holocanthus) and the spot-fin porcupinefish (diodon hystrix) are circumtropical, which means that they are present in all tropical seas of the planet. Whilst pufferfish live mainly in salt water, some species are also found in brackish water, such as the checkered puffer, commonly spotted at the edge of the mangroves in the Caribbean.
Parrotfish are emblematic to coral reefs. About 90 species populate tropical and subtropical areas on the Planet. They are characterized by a long body and a mouth that is more a “beak” strong enough to break coral. Parrotfish play a crucial part in the reef ecosystem: they are herbivorous and ceaselessly graze algae and polyps on the seabed, hence cleaning the reef up and helping it regenerate. The smallest adult parrotfish are about 30 cm long when the biggest (the impressive green humphead parrotfish, bolbometopon muricatum) can be more than 1m long. Male parrotfish are generally a lot bigger and more colored than the females. Some are amongst the brightest tropical fish with their turquoise coat. Those creatures are easy to observe with basic snorkel gear as they abound in numerous spots, even in shallow water.
Parrotfish are sometimes hard to distinguish between them since dozens of species show very similar colors. The Indo-Pacific area hosts the best diversity of species, some of them having very large distribution areas. For example, the blue-barred parrotfish (scarus ghobban) abounds in shallow waters from Eastern Africa to the Galápagos Islands. 14 parrotfish species can be observed in the Caribbean, including the stoplight parrotfish, most common in lagoons, or the much rarer midnight parrotfish (scarus coelestinus) with its dark blue scales. The Mediterranean parrotfish (sparisoma cretense) notably lives along the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean basin, but it remains hard to spot when snorkeling.
With about 500 species, the wrasse family (labridae) is the second largest family of marine fishes. Wrasse species appear in a diverse range of size, shape and color, sometimes varying considerably even within a single species, as they proceed through several distinct phases during their life. Wrasses are among the most abundant and conspicuous fish on shallow coral reefs, but also in temperate seas. Some wrasse can be really inquisitive, making them some of the easiest fish to see and photograph while snorkeling.
The largest (and also the most famous) species in this family is the Maori wrasse, which can reach a length of more than 6ft/2m. It is mainly seen on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Tuamotu Islands, where some individuals are almost tame. Thalassoma-type wrasse, bright and colorful, are common over coral reefs around the world. The sixbar wrasse (thalassoma hardwicke), widely distributed from East Africa to French Polynesia, is certainly the most common in the Indo-Pacific. In the Caribbean, the bluehead wrasse is simply unmissable. The vibrant colors of the ornate wrasse (thalassoma pavo) gives a tropical touch to the Mediterranean underwater landscape. Some other wrasse species are known for cleaning larger fish from their parasites, which they feed on. The best known among them is the bluestreak cleaner wrasse (labroides dimidiatus), found from the Red Sea to the Marquesas. Finally, if we had to vote for the most beautiful wrasse species, the juvenile clown coris (coris aygula), with its exquisite white body decorated with two black and orange eyespots, would undoubtedly be among our favorites.
More than 300 species of scorpaenidae (a fish family which includes lionfish, stonefish and scorpionfish) inhabit the world’s seas and oceans. A general characteristic of this family is to have venomous spines, mainly situated in their dorsal fin, which can cause very serious injuries and be potentially lethal. These fish are fortunately neither aggressive nor fast. However, scorpionfish are one of the main reasons why it is recommended not to step on the seabed or on rocks when snorkeling. Some scorpionfish, like the stonefish (the most venomous fish in the world), are indeed camouflage masters. Others, such as lionfish, with their beautiful wing-shaped fins, are some of the most elegant fish in the world.
The famous stonefish (synanceia verrucosa) can be seen from the coasts of East Africa to the South Pacific. The leaf scorpionfish (taenianotus triacanthus), common from South Africa to the Galápagos Islands, and often adorned with vibrant colors (yellow, red or purple), is a great subject for underwater photographers. Placid and majestic, lionfish are easy to encounter throughout the Indo-Pacific. Pterois miles (present from the Red Sea to Sumatra) and pterois volitans (which replaces it from Malaysia to the Pitcairn Islands) are almost indistinguishable from each other. These two species have become invasive in the Caribbean and southeastern Mediterranean, where their voracity is a serious threat for local marine ecosystems.
Moray eels (Muraenidae) are a big family encompassing about 200 species. Those snake-shaped fish with impressive teeth often scare swimmers. Yet most of the time moray eels are fearful and discreet, and only bite when defending themselves. They are often seen gaping, but there is no aggressiveness in that: opening and closing their jaws permanently just helps them breathe. Most of the time moray eels hide inside rocky holes, making them hard to spot as their head is often the only part sticking out. In average adult morays are 1,50m long. When snorkeling, you’re most likely to spot young ones (30-70 cm) since they take shelter in shallow areas, notably lagoons. There are even spots where they are fed and almost tamed by divers!
Most moray eels have wide distribution areas. The green moray eel (gymnothorax funebris) is the most widespread species in the Caribbean, but it’s not the only one: the spotted moray (gymnothorax moringa) and the chain moray (echidna catenate) can also be easily seen there. Yet the Caribbean is not the hottest place to spot eels: not less than 40 reef species have been identified in the Indian and Pacific Oceans! The most famous amongst them is the giant moray (gymnothorax javanicus), it is also the most distributed. The Mediterranean moray (or Roman eel, muraena helena) breeds in the Mediterranean Sea, but also along the Atlantic coast from the United Kingdom to Senegal.
Starfish (or sea stars) are one of the symbols of the oceans. There are about 1500 species of starfish, which occurs in all the seas and oceans of the world. Their star-shaped body (typically with 5 arms, but sometimes more) and their bright colors make them one of snorkeler’s favorite sightings. Most starfish are totally harmless, but learn to identify the crown-of-thorns starfish. These colored stars with 10 to 20 arms proliferate periodically in the Indo-Pacific, where they are a voracious predator of coral. In addition, they are very venomous and you have to absolutely avoid touching them.
In the Caribbean, the cushion starfish (oreaster reticulatus) is the most abundant species. Easy to observe even at shallow depths, it is possible to meet hundreds of them at some spots, forming real “carpets” on the sand. The horned starfish (protoreaster nodosus) is common in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Coral Triangle shallow seagrass beds. Throughout the Indo-Pacific, you cannot miss the blue starfish (linckia laevigata), solitary but very common on shallow flats, sometimes even a few meters from beaches. In the Mediterranean, the red starfish is easy to find, its bright red color contrasting with the dark rocky bottoms. If you visit the Galápagos Islands, you’ll easily see two nice species there: the Galápagos starfish (pentaceraster cumingi) and the chocolate starfish (nidorellia armata), with pretty yellow body and black spines.
Starfish lover? Check our top10 snorkeling spots to see starfish in the wild!
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