A blue and white and yellow striped fish seen on a Hawaiian reef

21 Common Hawaiian Fish Names and Pictures of Each!

Snorkeling in Hawai’i is a lot of fun, but the fun doesn’t stop when you get out of the water.

If you’re a fish nerd like me, figuring out the fish you saw after you get out of the water is all part of the fun!

Here is a guide to some of the most popular and unusual-looking reef fish in Hawai’i.

I’ve included their Hawaiian fish names and pictures of each, as well as their more common name as it it known outside of the Hawai’ian Islands.

I’ve also included important information, such as safety facts (some of these common Hawaiian fish are dangerous to be touched — and you should never touch a fish anyway!) and other things I think you should known beyond just the Hawaiian fish names and pictures.

Note: I am not a marine biologist — just an avid diver who has logged over 120+ dives — nor am I trained in the Hawaiian language. I have done my best research to ensure I am identifying these Hawaiian fish names correctly and with respect to the conventions of the Hawaiian language (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi)

To me, respecting the Hawaiian language is a duty I feel as an American, knowing my country is currently illegally occupying the Kingdom of Hawai’i. I am aiming to do my small, small part in preserving Hawaiian language and stories.

Please let me know if I have labeled or spelled anything incorrectly or misrepresented any ancestral Hawaiian knowledge or stories. Mahalo.

Kihikihi (Moorish Idol)

White yellow and black striped fish with a long white banner-style marking

The Moorish Idol, known as Kihikihi in Hawaiian, is one of the most distinctive Hawaiian fish you can identify.

This easily-noticed reef fish has a long white dorsal fin, which looks like an elegant sail for this beautiful, uniquely-shaped fish.

Its body is distinctive too: adorned with bold black, white, and yellow bands, making it stand out against the turquoise blue of the water or the electric colors of the reef.

They often stay quite shallow, making them the perfect Hawaiian reef fish for snorkelers to admire (and easy underwater photography subjects, too!)

In addition to being very numerous and easy-to-spot, they’re also quite active: they’re frequent feeders, so they’re out and about all day, munching on sponges and small invertibrates.

Lau-wiliwili-nukunuku‘oi‘oi (Long-Nosed Butterflyfish)

A yellow fish with a black and white head and a long nose on a Hawaiian reef

Fun fact: the long-nosed butterflyfish has the longest Hawaiian fish name of all fishes in Hawai’i!

Just try to say its name once, let alone three times fast.

While it’s the same colors as the Moorish Idol, the Long-Nosed Butterflyfish or Lau-wiliwili-nukunuku‘oi‘oi couldn’t look more different.

True to its name, this butterflyfish (a genus with soooo many species I can’t even count!) is characterized by its elongated snout-like nose.

It also has vibrant, striking coloration: yellow body marked with a black eye stripe and white and black accents.

This species, prevalent in Hawaiian coral reefs, feeds mainly on coral polyps and also some small invertebrates, meaning it’s a pretty active feeder so you’ll see it often.

Another fun fact — you’ll often see it in pairs, as these little sea creatures are monogamous!

Humuhumunukunukuāpua’a (Reef Triggerfish).

Famous national fish of Hawaii with white, blue, yellow, stripe detail

Time for a nerdy fact about yours truly: this is the fish that got me into fish ID!

Long story short, my parents bought me a fish identification card from a local snorkeling shop in Hawai’i.

I instantly fixated on the long name of this fish and basically instantly memorized it — I parroted its name over and over again during the trip because I was so proud of myself for pronouncing it!

Anyway, now that I’ve revealed what a huge nerd I am and have always been, let’s talk a bit about this fish.

It’s the state fish of Hawaii, and its name is humuhumunukunukuāpua’a in Hawaiian!

Fun fact: while the name sounds elegant, its Hawaiian name literally means triggerfish (humuhumu) with a pig-like snout!

Despite the slight shade of the Hawaiian name, I personally think it’s a real beauty.

However, be quite careful with with fish — its other name is ‘triggerfish’ for a reason, because these fish have an aggressive streak with a hair trigger!

But if you stay away, you can admire its intricate patterns of its blue-lined mask, yellow chin strap, and general black and white markings.

Watch out: they can lock their dorsal spine upright and that usually means they’re in territorial mode!

While I’ve noted if other fishes are territorial or poisonous on this list, the only type of fish that are somewhat likely to attack people are triggerfish, so always treat them with respectful distance.

In fact, most divers are more scared of Titan triggerfish than sharks (source: me and many memes) — but luckily, Titan triggerfish are totally absent from Hawai’i’s waters, so you can swim peacefully knowing these sea-demons are far, far away.

Humuhumu ‘ele’ele (Black Durgon Triggerfish)

A fish that looks black at first glance but actually has lots of intricate markings and electric blue or white stripes near the fins

Not quite as beautiful as its cousin above, the humuhumu ‘ele ‘ele in Hawaiian or black triggerfish (also known as black durgon) is still a unique Hawaiian reef fish.

From afar, they don’t look like anything special — just black fish with an electric-blue, almost-white marking around its fins — but if you get a little nearer, you’ll notice all the special reticulated markings around its face.

Then again, you won’t want to get too close. Like all triggerfish, this guy can be a little aggressive, and yes, they’re also known to nibble at snorkelers and divers!

You’ll find in them in shallow reefs and lagoons, making it an easy find for snorkelers.

These guys tend to be solitary critters, so you won’t see them schooling or in pairs often.

Loulu (Scrawled Filefish)

A yellow thin fish that is shaped strangely with a puckering mouth. It also has black spots and irregular neon blue markings.

This is not the most common Hawaiian reef fish but when you spot it you won’t forget it — you’ll get out of the water instantly thinking “now what on earth was that beautiful creature?”

The Scrawled Filefish, or Loulu in Hawiian, is extremely unique (interesting note: most other filefish in Hawaii are given names with “ō’ili” to refer to the way their spine will rise up, similar to a triggerfish, if threatened)

Nearly flat in shape with an elongated body, complete with an intricate network of turquoise-blue lines, the rest of the fish’s body varies in tone from yellow to green to taupe. 

You’ll usually find this guy along the coral reefs or next to sea fans or even seagrass. It’s quite a shy critter, and it’s somewhat rare, but it’s too beautiful not to include on this guide.

Fun fact: it can change its color rapidly, so that’s not a trick of your eyes!

Moa (White-Spotted Boxfish)

blue, orange, and black colored box-shaped fish with a funny-shaped puckered mouth on a sandy reef area

Time for my personal favorite fish on this list: the moa, or white-spotted boxfish.

It’s a bit funny to name it a white-spotted boxfish when in reality, only one small portion of its body is actually covered in white spots (its back).

On the other hand, its sides and face are covered in a leopard-print like cobalt-blue and black reticulated pattern.

It also has distinctive orange details on its forehand and near its tail!

The boxfish has a uniquely rectangular shape and large, pucker-y lips.

Plus, they have a funky motion, drifting and bobbing along until they notice they’ve been spotted — and then they’ll move along at quite a fast pace!

Makukana (Thornback Cowfish)

A thornback cowfish looking face-on to the camera with turquoise background

A close second favorite, the thornback cowfish (or Makukana in Hawaiian) is almost like if the white-spotted boxfish and the scrawled filefish had a baby.

It has the funky, box-shaped body of the former, though it’s a little more triangular. It also has two ‘horns’ which give it the ‘cow’ in its cowfish name.

The body has really similar markings to the scrawled filefish, with a taupe-yellow color with electric blue ‘scrawled’ like markings.

Fun fact: while not a pufferfish, this species is known for its ability to inflate its body as a defense mechanism — but please don’t stress the fish trying to make it do so!

Na’ena’e (Orangeband Surgeonfish)

A gray fish with an orange stripe and blue markings around its face and a black lower half of body and tail

One of the larger fish on this list is the Orangeband Surgeonfish, known as Na’ena’e in Hawaiian. 

Though it is otherwise a little unremarkable, it sports a striking orange horizontal stripe along its blue-gray body, plus a little blue detailing for flair.

While it’s a larger fish, it tends to be an algae-grazer rather than a hunter, so you’ll see it out and about rather often.

How’d it get its name? Well, it has a scalpel-like spine on its tail, which it uses for defense — I suggest you try not to find out about that firsthand!

Nunu (Trumpetfish)

A trumpetfish (long, narrow fish) with gray body and black and yellow tail on a reef

These funny-shaped fish are a perennial favorite.

For one, they’re endlessly easy to identify. For another, the symbol for one underwater that divers use is quite hilarious — imagine someone underwater miming playing a trumpet!

They are rather common, and you’ll find them in this color variation primarily but you can also find a bright yellow version as well.

These trumpetfish move through the water both vertically and horizontally, moving smoothly like a sailboat when horizontal or drifting like a bit of seagrass when its vertical.

When it is the greenish-brown color, it’s perfect for camouflaging among algae-covered corals.

Unlike most of the fish on this list, the trumpetfish a stealth predator, feeding on small fish and crustaceans.

But most of the time, it’s just hanging out, hovering motionless in the water.

Mane’one’o (Sailfin Tang)

Blue and white and yellow striped with with beautiful markings on a Hawaiian coral reef

The Sailfin Tang, or Mane’one’o, is one of several species of tang you can find among Hawaiian fish.

This particular tang is notable for its large, sail-like dorsal fins, which are further made beautiful by their striking blue and yellow stripes.

It’s found all over the Indo-Pacific but is commonly found in Hawai’i, munching on algae and schooling with like-minded tangs.

I love just how colorfully intricate this Hawaiian reef fish is, and I think you will too.

Manini (Convict Tang)

Yellow-hued black and white fish schooling together in a group

Not the most exciting of Hawaiian reef fish but one of the most common, the Manini (or convict tang in English, for its prisoner-like black-and-white markings) is a frequent sighting on Hawaiian snorkeling outings.

These tangs gather like there’s constantly a tang convention — it’s rare to find a few hanging out unaccompanied, but typically, they’re in a large social cluster of fish.

This phenomenon is called ‘shoaling’ (schooling is when they all come together to form one uniform mass, whereas shoaling is where they all move together, but don’t have unified movements).

While not the cutest of fish, you should know this Hawaiian fish name simply because it is so common.

Lau’ipala (Yellow Tang)

A fully yellow fish with a narrow fash, no other markings or colors on the fish. The only bright yellow fish in Hawaii

Now here’s a tang everyone loves: the yellow tang, or Lau’ipala in Hawaiian (which means ‘yellow ti leaf’, ti being an important plant in Hawaiian culture).

It’s name is rather simple… it’s a tang (which have that distinct dorsal and anal fin with a pointy triangular tail, with a snout-like nose)… and it’s yellow.

It’s the only solid yellow fish you’ll see on Hawaii’s reefs, so if you see a pure yellow pure… you saw a yellow tang.

Hence, yellow tang. Sometimes, Hawaiian fish names aren’t that complicated! (Now nudibranchs, that’s another story)…

These Hawai’i fish are hard to miss because they’re just vibrant yellow!

Hīnālea ‘akilolo (Bird Wrasse)

A bird wrasse fish on a coral reef looking for food with an elongated beak-like mouth

The bird wrasse is part of the part of the wrasse family of fish, one of the largest, most diverse families of fish there are out there.

Just how diverse? We’re talking 600 species across more than 80 genera (the plural of genus) — and they range in size all over the place, not to mention color!

In fact, if you really can’t identify a colorful fish you see while snorkeling in Hawaii and it has an elongated body and lots of color, chances are it’s probably a kind of wrasse.

The bird wrasse (Hīnālea ‘akilolo is its Hawaiian fish name) looks a little different than most wrasse because it has a bird-like mouth, which makes it very easy to identify.

In general, most wrasse will have a more traditional fish-like mouth, one that comes to a rounded edge rather than a pointy ‘beak’.

Kīkākapu (Butterflyfish)

A butterflyfish with a band on its eyes and a white marking above it and other yellow and black markings eating algae or dead coral off of a reef in Hawaii

While I’ve done my best in this post on Hawaiian reef fish and pictures of each particular species, the Hawaiian fish name Kīkākapu appears to the butterflyfish family as a whole.

It seems that Hawaiians broadly classify all butterflyfish as kīkākapu, whereas scientists outside of Hawaii have classified them into distinct species based on their patterns and looks.

Kīkākapu actually means “strongly forbidden” in Hawaiian language — it’s been historically illegal to catch them for food, probably because the Hawaiians knew what an important role they played in a healthy coral reef.

Why so important? They feed on dead and sick coral polyps as well as algae that covers the corals and makes it hard for the coral to get their nutrients.

In short, lots of butterflyfish means a healthy reef, so that’s why in general this fish family has been given this name.

There are over 120 currently-identified species of butterflyfish… and of that massive number, a whopping 25 live in Hawai’i!

What I’ve shown is a raccoon butterflyfish, because it’s my favorite (who doesn’t love a trash panda of the sea?) but Hawai’i is home to several other kinds of Kīkākapu (butterflyfish).

Types of butterflyfish you can find in the Hawai’ian islands include: blue-striped, milletseed, multiband, orangemargin, lemon, blacklip, oval, teardrop, fourspot, raccoon [pictured], saddleback, reticulated, ornate, chevron, threadfin, lined, pyramid…. and I’m not even finished with the list!

A few others have been given official Hawaiian names that are more descriptive, including kapuhili (Oval Butterflyfish), lauwiliwili (Milletseed Butterflyfish), and the lauhau (Fourspot and Teardrop Butterflyfish)… but not all [source].

Kōkala (Giant Porcupinefish)

A  large fish with a huge round eye and spines on it looking calm on a coral reef

Many people may hear the name giant porcupinefish (Kōkala is the fish name in Hawaiian language) and immediately prickle.

Let me tell you, I’ve dove and snorkeled with dozens of these guys — they’re as peaceful and adorable as can be, as long as you don’t try to swallow them whole (and since they can be about 3 feet long, you probably won’t).

They look prickly, but they don’t use their spines to harm humans. That said, their spines are rather poisonous, so do not touch them — but the golden rule of diving and snorkeling is do not touch any animal, period, so this is not specific to porcupinefish.

Most people think porcupinefish are shy… actually, this has not been my personal experience with them, as I find they are often rather curious about divers.

In fact, I’ve had a porcupinefish hang out with me for a solid 5 minutes during an afternoon dive, then join me for nearly 20 minutes later on on a night dive, following along at a curious distance!

Porcupinefish are often found either swimming between reefs or nestled in little nooks of the reef, so they’re not always the easiest to spot for snorkelers, who are at surface level.

But if you spot one, count yourself lucky… just, of course, don’t touch it (or anything on this list, please!)

Mamo (Sergeant Major)

Black and white striped fish that have spiky mohawk-like fins and five black stripes and yellow hue at the top of their body

Another common reef fish in Hawai’i (and in fact endemic to the islands), the Hawaiian sergeant major (Mamo) gets its common name for… well, looking like a cop I guess!

Unlike convict tangs, which have a similar body and similar stripes, Hawaiian sergeant majors are a lot more yellow on the body rather than silver-y.

Also, they have five bands on their body, which fade to a white belly.

It’s part of the damselfish family, also known as the green damselfish.

But don’t be fooled by the ‘damsel’ in the fish name…

These are no damsels in distress (you’re the only more likely to feel distress, to be honest).

The damselfish is actually one of the more aggressive fish species!

Luckily their ‘bark’ (the way they bob and weave in front of your face to mark their territory) is worse than their bite (and yes, they will bite, though it’s never hurt me through a wetsuit!)

Kūpīpī (Black Spotted Sergeant Fish)

A gray and white striped fish similar to the fish above, but with a black spot on its tail, and a little bit larger, on a rocky ledge in Hawaii water

Similar to the Hawaiian sergeant major above, these guys are all over the Indo-Pacific (and they will let you know it).

Like its more yellow-y colored sibling above, it is an active, aggressive fish that likes to dominate its territory… and that includes snorkelers!

These fish can end up larger than the Hawaiian sergeant major, at a maximum size of 9 inches (Hawaiian sergeant majors will reach about 7″)

These are some of the largest damselfishes you’ll find in Hawai’i, so if you notice a solitary little guy dogging you repeatedly, and it’s larger than most things you’ve seen, there’s a good chance it’s this guy!

In terms of color, you can notice them by their brown-gray color, also with a light belly. While Hawaiian sergeant majors always have five verticle stripes, these guys can have 5 or 6, and they also have a dark spot on the base of their tail fin, which is why they get their name.

Nohux ‘omakaha  (Devil Scorpionfish)

Dangerous well-camouflaged fish looking like a stone on a sandy bottom

A favorite of underwater photographers, the devil scorpionfish or Nohu ‘omakaha is a prime reason of why you should never step on the reef or grab onto corals… you just might grab onto or step on this and regret it immensely!

Its common name of ‘devil scorpionfish’ — both colloquial and scientific (Latin), Scorpaenopsis diabolus — refers to the fact that it has rather venomous spines (12 of them, in fact) that can actually kill humans if they are stung too badly!

Wow, I sure have a way of picking out Hawaiian reef fish that can really mess you up, can’t I? It’s not my fault that the most interesting-looking fish are also often the most dangerous!

You’ll notice the scorpionfish because… at first you won’t! These guys are masters of camouflage.

They can reach more than one inch long and they perfectly align themselves on stones or corals, letting their mottled gray body blend in to the scenery.

Keep an eye out for irregularities in the corals shape and color, and its eyes, which it does not camouflage well!

One cool thing if you see the devil scorpionfish move is that it has pectoral fins that are a vivid orange, and if it feels threatened, it will ‘flash’ them as a warning.

Generally, though, these species don’t move unless they feel truly threatened, because they are ambush predators who camouflage, settle in, lie in wait, and then wait for unsuspecting fish to approach them so they can hunt them virtually undetected!

Nohu Pinao (Hawaiian Lionfish)

A red lionfish hunting on the reef wtih lots of spikes and stripes and reddish coloring

If you’ve dove in the Caribbean a lot like I have, you probably harbor an immense dislike for lionfish.

Not because they’re not beautiful — they’re absolutely stunning — but for the devastation they cause Caribbean reef fish, since there are no natural predators to lionfish in the Caribbean waters (though locals sure as hell as trying, with spearfishing and lionfish on every menu!).

A single lionfish on a Caribbean reef can reduce the reef’s inhabitants by almost 80% — an astounding number to show just how damaging these fish can be outside their local ecosystem.

But luckily, Hawai’i is part of the Indo-Pacific waters, where lionfish populations are in check due to a plethora of natural predators, including moray eels, cornetfish, sharks, and tiger groupers.

While some of these species also exist in the Caribbean, it’s not in their nature to eat lionfish for whatever reason — perhaps a slight evolutionary difference in the same species, or just not learning the behavior from their fellow species-mates.

Some divers, who spearfish lionfish to keep the Caribbean reef healthy, have experimented with feeding lionfish to sharks and eels, which would be their natural predators — but it’s not exactly clear if this is a good idea, as it’s not known if the sharks/eels will generalize eating lionfish, or just learn to expect easy meals from divers.

Anyway, storytime aside: you can rest easy when you see lionfish in Hawai’i, where they are known as Nohu Pinao, because they are not damaging to the reef systems here.

They are, however, quite venomous — while they won’t kill you, they will give you a nasty shock! Their spines contain a neuromuscular toxcin (well doesn’t that sound fun?) — one that’s often compared to literal cobra venom.

Since you probably wouldn’t touch a cobra, just don’t touch the lionfish.

That said, they’re very easy to avoid. They are not aggressive or curious in the slightest, and they spend 99% of their time looking in reef crevices, hunting down their prey.

While their venom is dangerous to humans, they will never attack — you’d have to grab it and grab the spines in order to get hurt.

Kala (Blue Spine Unicornfish)

A fish with a 'horn' growing out of its head similar to a unicorn, hence its name. its body is a pale, light blue.

This dorky but adorable Hawaiian reef fish, the bluespine unicornfish (or unicorn tang or Kala in Hawaiian language) is a favorite of mine simply because it’s unusual and easy to identify.

They have a horn-like projection from their head — hence the name — but it’s not exactly sure why they have this horn, as they don’t use it for defense or anything cool.

Like other tangs, it’s part of the surgeonfish family, which does have blades at the base of their tail, which they can use to defend themselves or also to combat competitors when they covet a primo feeding area.

But these guys have a leg up on their other hangs — while most surgeonfishes and tangs have a single retractable blade on their tail, unicornfish have not one but two — and they’re fixed in place, so this fish is basically swimming around with two shivs in its tail.

The underwater world is so metal, isn’t it? (Just wait until you get me started on peacock mantis shrimp…)

As per the Waikīkī Aquarium, unicornfish were a common part of the ancient Hawaiian diet, but the native people used the fish for more than just that. ‘Kala’, the name for fish in the unicornfish family, is Hawaiian for ‘rough’ which refers to their tough skin — they even used the skin to make drums!

Unicornfish also play a role in Hawaiian mythology, linked to the god Lonoikamakahiki, and ‘kala’ was given as a nickname for someone who could defend themselves well in battle.

Again, these fish are not ever aggressive to humans. However, if you are doing something stupid, like chasing them and trying to grab them, watch out — they can and will cut you with their tail blades.

Fishermen should also be quite careful if you catch one!

Kaku (Great Barracuda)

A fierce looking shiny narrow, thin barracuda with rows of razor-sharp teeth

Oooh, barracuda, oh yea!

Aside from inspiring one of the best Heart songs, barracudas also are a species that are known to inspire fear in humans.

This fear isn’t entirely unfounded: some barracudas will attack but only in a case of mistaken identity, and silver is usually the culprit, as barracudas don’t have fantastic eyesight and can mistake silver jewelry for a small silver fish.

Barracudas have also been known to ram into diver’s tanks because… silver and shiny!

That said, I’ve done over 120+ dives, and I’ve seen barracudas on maybe 20-30 of them, and I’ve never had a barracuda react to me with anything other than indifference or swimming away.

When you get up close and personal to them, as I did on accident on a Cozumel drift dive, you can see just how many teeth they have, which is rather intimidating but again, these are not aggressive fish — they’re just a little bit stupid, to be honest.

Did I freak you out? Don’t worry — there have only been 25 recorded attacks of barracudas on humans in history, most of them involving spearfishing, which isn’t entirely surprising… I’d fight back too!

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