Hawaii is one of the best destinations if you’re into water activities such as snorkeling, diving, surfing and more. Traveling to Hawaii is simply not complete without dipping your feet in the waters and enjoying snorkeling in its clear waters. The islands are home to a wide range of unique and interesting marine life so exploring their habitat underwater is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever do while on the islands. If you’re already booked to visit Hawaii’s waters or are still in the planning stages, the different fish you’ll encounter underwater should pique your interest. As such, read on to know the different fish you’ll encounter on your next snorkeling adventure!
Hawaiian Fish you will see while Snorkeling
When snorkeling in the waters of Hawaii, we can guarantee that you will come back amazed at the teeming marine life in its waters. Be sure to be on the lookout for Uhu (Parrotfish), Humuhumu ‘ele’ele (Black Durgeon Triggerfish), Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (Lagoon Triggerfish), O’opu hue (Stripebelly Puffer Fish), Kihikihi (Moorish Idol), Kikakapu (Racoon Butterflyfish), Lau Wiliwili-nukunuku-oioi (Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish), Ala’ihi (Squirrelfish), Moa (Spotted Trunkfish), Nunu (Trumpetfish), Hinalea (Rainbow Cleaner Wrasse), Pololia and Pa’I Malau (Portuguese Man-O-War), Malolo (Flying Fish), He’e (Octopus), Pe’a (Starfish), and so much more. We’ll break down some of the popular fish to look out for as you read on for you to be prepared when it’s time to snorkel.
Moorish Idol (Kihikihi)
The Kihikihi, or the Moorish Idol, is probably most recognized by a lot of people due to the animated movie Finding Nemo. In the animated movie, Gill, or the Moorish Idol, has some pretty bad scars due to landing on dentist tools during one of his daring escapes. This popular fish can be pretty large as they can grow for up to 8”. Their wide, vertical black, yellow and white stripes are easily recognizable when snorkeling. They also have long and thin snouts and are a pretty common sight when underwater. The Kihikihi’s primary diet consists of plant life, invertebrates, and sponges.
Lagoon Triggerfish (Humuhumunukunukuapua’a)
The Lagoon Triggerfish, also known as Picasso fish due to its vibrant colors, is common in the Indo-Pacific region which includes Hawaii. It’s the state’s official fish and is distinguished by its snout that looks like a pig, which is the literal translation of its Hawaiian name. The Lagoon Triggerfish grows to about 6-7” and is quite aggressive and territorial, especially when protecting its eggs during mating season. Their diet consists of small shrimp, crabs, and even algae. They can usually be seen from shallow waters and up to 15 feet below the surface and like shallow protected bays. A lot of snorkelers have stories about being chased by the Lagoon Triggerfish as a protective gesture, but they’re generally harmless and aren’t dangerous.
Raccoon Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)
Another fish you’ll probably see while snorkeling under Hawaii’s beaches is the Kikakapu, or Raccoon Butterflyfish. It’s a common sight in the Hawaiian reefs because of its huge numbers. You can spot the Raccoon Butterflyfish a mile away due to its yellowish-orange complexion and its upper half that’s significantly darker than its bottom half. They got their namesake because of their raccoon-like black face. They can reach up to 8” when fully grown and feast on nudibranch, tubeworm tentacles, and other invertebrates.
Have you ever wondered how Hawaii’s beaches are always mesmerizing and pristine even with a lot of tourists walking the sandy beaches on a daily basis? It’s all thanks to the Uhu, or Parrotfish, as they help maintain the underwater ecosystem. Parrotfish are some of the largest and most vibrant marine life you’ll see in Hawaii. Adult Parrot Fish grow around 10-40” and their snouts resemble the beaks of a parrot, hence their name. Their mere presence alone makes for a very healthy reef system as they mainly feed on the corals and create the beach-building sand that everyone loves when they poop! Now that’s a fun fact you can definitely share with your friends and loved ones.
One of the peculiar fishes to look out for when snorkeling on the beaches of Hawaii is definitely the Trumpetfish, or the Nunu, as called by the locals. The Nunu is one of the most interesting fish to look out for when snorkeling because they look completely different when compared to other marine life underwater. Their long bodies resemble that of a trumpet and are so thin you’ll have difficulty spotting them in the water. The average size of the Nunu is around 20-25”, and they mostly feed on smaller fish as well as crustaceans. The normal color of the Trumpetfish is gray but can change its color to green and yellow at will when threatened to blend in the environment.
Stripebelly Puffer Fish (O’opu hue)
The Stripebelly Puffer Fish also inhabits the shallow lagoons of Hawaii. They can usually be found in sandy and rocky areas of the beach as they mostly feed on invertebrates. They grow around 14-18” long and will usually let you approach them within a few feet. However, the Stripebelly Puffer Fish will immediately swim away when threatened until they feel safe again. They have the ability to inflate themselves with water to appear larger and scare predators away. Pufferfish are highly toxic to humans unless properly prepared by a trained chef. Even so, it’s best to stay cautious if you want to try Pufferfish as a delicacy as it’s still dangerous.
Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Lau Wiliwili-nukunuku-oioi)
Another fish you’ll easily identify when snorkeling under the Hawaiian sun is the Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish. This is because they wield a snout that resembles a needle-nose plier and sport a bright yellow-black mask and a large black spot beneath their tail. Their snout is not just for show as they can easily pick up any food even from rocky crevices and craggy coral reefs. The Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish is primarily carnivorous and prefers to feed on echinoderms, sea urchins, fish eggs, crustaceans, and other invertebrates.
The Ala’ihi, or the Squirrelfish, is an endemic species found in Hawaiian waters. They have a deep red color with very large eyes. They’re abundant in numbers but finding them while snorkeling is usually difficult because Squirrelfish are nocturnal creatures and prefer to rest in dark places such as caves or holes during the daytime. Squirrelfish go out at night taking advantage of their large eyes to feed in the dark. They have large scales and toxic fins as well as head spines that can cause painful wounds if touched. However, they’re a popular delicacy locally and can be eaten raw, salted, or broiled after drying.
Black Durgeon Triggerfish (Humuhumu ‘ele’ele)
The Black Durgeon Triggerfish, locally known as Humuhumu ‘ele’ele, is most commonly found at Molokini during your snorkeling escapades. They’re one of the most common species you’ll easily spot while underwater and they range in size from 10-12” long. They usually feed on algae and zooplankton and are usually seen in the water column. Black Durgeon Triggerfish can be quite aggressive and territorial so it’s best to observe them at a distance when snorkeling or swimming near them.
Spotted Trunkfish (Moa)
The Spotted Trunkfish or Moa is a slow-moving type of fish with a hard outer covering for protection against natural predators. They are popularly referred to as “boxfish” because of their appearance and are also commonly found hiding between small crevices. The Spotted Trunkfish are a subspecies of their relatives in the Indo-Pacific region. A male boxfish sports a bright blue color on its sides while the females have brown with white spots. They feed on sponges, algae, mollusks, and other invertebrates and they can grow up to 2-4” in size.
Rainbow Cleaner Wrasse (Hinalea)
The Rainbow Cleaner Wrasse can usually be found clinging to the backs of other fish and turtles to feed on algae as their primary diet. They’ve certainly earned their name as they can often be found in pairs, cleaning other marine life to nourish themselves. Like other reef fish, they can change sex as needed to accommodate favorable mating conditions. Rainbow Cleaners are relatively small and only reach lengths of up to 5” even when fully grown. They sport a black stripe lined by a vibrant pink and can also be easily spotted when snorkeling in the ocean.
Portuguese Man-O-War (Pololia And Pa’I Malau)
While resembling a jellyfish, the Portuguese Man-O-War is actually a collection of multiple organisms called zooids. These zooids carry individual functions and act as a single individual as they’re physically incapable of independent survival. They have venomous tentacles that deliver a powerful sting that can kill a fish and on occasion, even humans. If you sport a Portuguese Man-O-War while snorkeling, you’ll definitely find more as they tend to travel in groups. Fortunately for you, Portuguese Man-O-War’s rarely sting snorkelers but it’s always best to stay cautious especially when you encounter one yourself during your adventures.
Flying Fish (Malolo)
The Flying Fish, or the Malolo as the locals call it, are a popular fish to spot even without snorkeling. You have a high chance of spotting them gliding around evading underwater predators and sea birds at the same time while basking on a sunset sail in Hawaii. The Flying Fish travels upwards in the air for distances of up to 1300 feet and for periods of up to 40 seconds to a minute. Tourists and locals enjoy the Flyingfish’s ability to avoid predators underwater and gasp as they get caught by an agile sea bird.
Octopi were hunted by Hawaiians for centuries and they traditionally do so by spearfishing. Surprisingly, Octopi are one of the smartest creatures living in the oceans and have a lot of defense mechanisms to avoid predators, humans and other marine life included. Octopi can change their colors at will and disperse ink when threatened. They’re excellent at adapting to their environment even in captivity as they have shown to demonstrate cognitive abilities when observed by scientists. If you see a local that recently caught one, they’ll probably prepare it boiled, cut into small pieces, and served with chili peppers, spices, and soy sauce. Be sure to try out what the locals call “Octopus Taco” if you’re willing to try something new.
Starfish, or Pe’a, as the locals call it, are having a sort of name identity crisis as the name “Sea Star” has been recently adopted by the scientific community to better reflect what the creature really is. After all, Sea Stars are not fish, and are actually related to sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Up to 20 species of Sea Stars thrive around the waters of Hawaii and you’ll definitely spot some of them in the seabed during one of your snorkeling adventures. Sea Stars are both predators and scavengers and they use their arms to crawl along the ocean floor to locate and scavenge prey.
How easily can I spot the list of Hawaiian Fish to look out for?
You’ll be surprised how fast you can identify the many beautiful Hawaiian fish beaming with life under the waters of the islands. Once you’ve found the perfect snorkeling spot, the chances of you spotting not just one but multiple marine creatures underwater are better than finding none at all. The schools of vibrant and colorful tropical fish and other invertebrates that dot the ocean floor are something that will last a lifetime.
While you’re at it, be sure to buy or rent custom-fit dry-mouth snorkels when planning your trip. High-quality snorkels are a must to keep water out of your mouth while providing safety and comfort in the water. They’re basically the difference between having a hell of a good time and having a bummer during your snorkeling adventures. So, don’t skimp out on high-quality snorkels!
While snorkeling along the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches of Hawaii is certainly something to cherish and remember as you grow old, you still have a special role to play among the reefs, coral, and all the other marine life that thrives without human intervention. Respecting their habitat should always be one of your priorities in mind when visiting this new world under our feet. Marveling at the world around us is something that makes us very unique and peacefully coexisting with other life makes the world a better place. In doing so, our future generations can also meet all our underwater friends and pass this wonderful memory on to the next.