5 Uniquely Hawaiian Fish Species Found in Maui Coral Reefs

Thinking about joining us for a Maui snorkeling tour? Ours can take you to the lovely little crescent island of Molokini, or to the scenic shores of neighboring Lanai island. No doubt you’re most excited about the fascinating types of marine life that you’ll discover, and aside from the turtles and dolphins that we frequently see on our tours, there are some truly special fish that you may see as you explore these vibrant underwater ecosystems. What makes them special? About 20 percent of the reef fish that live in Hawaii are found nowhere else on Earth. Some are sighted frequently, others on rare occasion. We can’t list them all in one blog, so here are five of the most beautiful, recognizable, and uniquely Hawaiian fish that you might spot on our snorkeling tours.


Potter’s Angelfish (Centropyge potteri)

Hawaiian Name: None

Sighting Frequency: Rare

Physical Description: Disc-shaped fish that grows to about 5 inches in length. Coloration is vivid orange marbled with turquoise. Rich royal blue tail color with nearly black marbling extends through the middle of the body to the base of the head.

This is the only common angelfish found in Hawaii’s reefs, and also one of the most stunning of all fish you might encounter here. Sightings are rare because it prefers branching corals and ledges deeper than 20 feet. Active during the day, it remains close to the shelter of the coral while feeding on algae and detritus typically found on dead coral surfaces.


Saddle Wrasse (Thalassoma duperrey)

Hawaiian Name: hīnālea lauwili

Sighting Frequency: Common

Physical Description: A long-bodied fish reaches up to 11 inches in length. The body is predominantly dusky green. The head typically features a deep royal blue hue, followed by a bold orange vertical stripe, which is also followed by a soft white stripe in males.

This fish is one of the most common, recognizable sightings that you can find in the reefs around the main Hawaiian islands, including Molokini and Lanai, where we operate our tours. This opportunistic feeder can be found gliding around the reefs, pecking at invertebrates, fish eggs, and algae. They can sometimes be seen spawning in groups in spring and summer afternoons during new moon phases in low tide. The behavior involves the group darting upward and releasing clouds of sperm and eggs before descending back to the reef.


Bandit Angelfish (Apolemichthys arcuatus)

Hawaiian Name: None

Sighting Frequency: Rare

Physical Description: Disc-shaped fish that grows to about seven inches. Easily distinguished by the thick black bar running from its eyes to the end of its body just above the tail. The body is cream colored above the bar and pure white below the bar. Another thick black streak runs along the end of its tail and down to the anal fin.

One of the most vivid of Hawaii’s reef fish because its bold white and black coloration, this fish is hard to miss when you’re in its habitat. You will not often spot one of these while snorkeling, but if SCUBA diving, you may find it feeding on sponges at 70+ feet in depth. Interestingly enough, this fascinating fish is found in depths as shallow as 25 feet around the cooler Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.


Hawaiian Sergeant (Abudefduf abdominalis)

Hawaiian Name: mamo

Sighting Frequency: Common

Physical Description: Disc-shaped, and growing up to 9 inches in length. A silvery blue fish with vertical black stripes and a splash of yellow at the center of the body for adults (top of the body for juveniles).

The Hawaiian Sergeant is one of the more common attractive species that you can find in many shallow reef environments while snorkeling. The sergeant tends to be found in aggregations just above the reef outcrops and ledges. In these areas, they feed on zooplankton carried by the current.


Fantailed Filefish (Pervagor spilosoma)

Hawaiian Name: ‘ō’ili ‘uwi ‘uwi

Sighting Frequency: Rare

Physical Description: Football shaped fish growing up to about 7 inches in length. The body is predominantly yellow, mottled throughout by small black spots. The head comes to a sharp point at the mouth, which is white at the tip. The tail is bright orange and shaped like a fan, with a black stripe and a yellow stripe at the end. A pronounced dorsal spine is located at the top of the head, directly above the eye.

This versatile species can be found between 30 and 60 feet, but have also been found in both deeper and shallower waters among the coral reefs. An opportunistic feeder, this species will dine on everything from algae to invertebrates. Sightings tend to be rare because you never know when or where this flashy fish will pop up, and their population cycles could be described as boom-or-bust. Let’s hope you’re out snorkeling with us during one of their booms.


We hope to see you aboard one of our Maui snorkeling tours soon so you can enjoy the beauty of Hawaii’s stunning coral reefs and the many beautiful species that make their home there. If you have any questions about the many creatures that you see, feel free to ask our knowledgeable crew about them. We’re happy to answer any questions you might have. Mahalo!

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