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Reef Fish in Hawaii

Hawaiian reef life

The Hawaiian Islands attract some of the most skillful divers in the world. With dynamic underwater seascapes, scuba divers and snorkelers will find themselves in a haven of reefs writhing with brightly colored fishes. One thing that makes Hawaii such a unique place to dive is that 20% of Hawaiian reef fish cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

One interesting factor to note is that most fish in Hawaii are referred to by their Hawaiian (and in some cases, Japanese) names. Depending on the kind of fish, some may also have different names to describe a young adolescent fish and a different one when it reaches full maturation. For example, a young goat fish is called o’ama until it is mature when it is called weke. In several instances, the Hawaiian name for some fish have become more commonly used terms throughout the world. This is evident in examples when the name mahimahi is used for dolphin (i.e., the fish, not the marine mammal) and ahi for yellowfin and bigeye tunas.

Black Bar Tiggerfish


Hawaii’s reefs support a wide range of fishes. Some live exclusively on the reef while others live in deeper waters but regularly prowl the reefs for prey. Some fishes are considered to be excellent gamefish, some make excellent meals while others, because of their unusual or vibrant colors, are prized as tropical fish to be displayed aquariums. Some can even be extremely dangerous in variety of ways. Here are a few examples of the types of fishes that can be found in Hawaii’s reefs:

Triggerfish: The colorful looking and equally colorfully named humuhumunukunukuapua’a or Hawaiian triggerfish is the Aloha State’s official fish. Some of the triggerfish found on Hawaii’s reefs are the: humuhumu le le or black triggerfish, humuhumu mimi or bridled triggerfish, humuhumu lei or lei triggerfish and humuhumu hiu lole or pinktail triggerfish.

Scad: In Hawaii, when a bigeye scad is young, it is called a halalu and when it is mature, akule. Another popular type of scad in Hawaii is the opelu or mackerel scad. Both the akule and opelu are popular comfort food dishes among local Hawaii residents, typically eating them fried with soy sauce along with a bowl of steamed white rice.

Snapper: The wide variety of snappers that live on Hawaii’s corals reefs includes the: prolific ta’ape or bluestripe snapper, uku or grey snapper , ehu or squirrelfish snapper, to’au or blacktail snapper, wahanui or forktail snapper and kalekale or Von Siebold’s snapper to name a few. Many of these fishes are relatively good to eat and can be found in many local fish markets.

Jack and Trevally: Without question, the most notable type of jacks in Hawaii is the ulua or trevally. When uluas are typically less than 10 to 12 pounds they are called papio. These majestic and powerful predatory fish hunt prey on the reef and are prized for their gamefish abilities as well as for their taste, particularly when they are not very large (i.e., when they are papios). Some of the uluas found in Hawaii include the white ulua or giant trevally, omilu or bluefin trevally and ulua pa’opa’o or yellow trevally. Other type of jacks to be found on Hawaii’s reefs are the kahala or amberjack, which is prone to being infected with the poisonous ciguatera toxin, and the lai or leatherback, whose tough shiny skin is often used in lure making.

Shark: The Hawaiian coral reefs offer an abundant feeding ground for several shark species; among them are the: blacktip reef shark (mano pa’ele), cookiecutter shark, sandbar shark (mano), scalloped hammerhead (mano kihikihi), tiger shark (niuhi) and whitetip reef shark mano lala kea. While it is not very common, there are sometimes reports of sharks attacking swimmers and surfers in Hawaii.

Eel: The two most commonly found eels in Hawaii are the moray and conger eels. A moral eel is called puhi in Hawaiian. Typically, moray eels are not very aggressive by nature but can prove dangerous to divers when provoked. On the other hand, conger eels have no real teeth to speak of and are often called tohei or white eels by local fishermen who like to use their meat as bait.

Scorpionfish: Hawaii has 25 of world’s 350 known species of nohu or scorpionfish around the world. Some nohu, like the nohu pinao or Hawaiian lionfish, is highly visible with its colorful and long flowing fins; but its spines are extremely toxic. While, on the other hand, the nohu omakaha or devil scorpionfish is also a master of disguise and often mistaken for a rock. When someone unknowingly steps on a nohu omakaha in shallow water and gets stung by its spines, it will cause intense throbbing and sharp pain. If you see nohus in the water or while walking on the reefs, you should definitely stay away from them.

Parrotfish: The uhu or bullethead parrotfish might be one of the most colorful larger coral reef fishes to be found in Hawaii. Parrotfish are aptly named because they have powerful teeth that look like a parrot’s beak which they use to eat algae and polyps off of the reef. They are also popular to eat either steamed or baked and you may see many restaurants in Hawaii serving uhu on their menu. Other type of uhus includes the palenose parrotfish and the uhu palukaluka or redlip parrotfish.

Squirrelfish:  The ala’ihi or Hawaiian squirrelfish is more commonly referred in the Aloha State by its Japanese name, mempachi. As nocturnal feeders, one of the most notable features of the mempachi is its big eyes that can absorb light from the moon and stars to help it see at night. Another notable characteristic of the mempachi is that it makes grunting sounds by grinding its teeth and stretching its gas bladder muscles to scare away predators, which some say sounds like the chatter of squirrels. So if you near squirrels’ grunts while diving in Hawaii, you are probably hearing the mempachi valiantly trying to scare you away.

Whitemouth Moray Eel


To witness some of these glorious reef fishes in their natural habitat, visit one of the many coral reefs in Hawaii. When you travel to the Aloha State, take an afternoon and go free-diving, scuba diving, snuba diving or snorkeling in the waters right outside of one of Hawaii’s many beautiful shores, beaches and bays.


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