Maui Scuba Diving Fish Guide
Tropical Fish in Maui
Scuba diving in Maui with beautiful tropical fish, green sea turtles, and even sharks should make the bucket list for many visitors during a vacation to Lahaina, Maui. To maximize your dive or snorkel experience it is helpful to learn about some of the fish and creatures you are likely to see! That’s why Banyan Tree Divers Maui has assembled this helpful Maui Scuba Diving Fish Guide to provide photos and interesting information about some of the unique sea life that inhabits Maui’s nearshore waters.
Ornate Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)
The ornate butterflyfish is one of the most photogenic fish we find in Maui. Their bright contrasted colors protect them from predators. Adults are predominantly found in pairs and stay together for life earning them the title of the most romantic fish we see on our dives.
These fish feed exclusively on coral polyp tissue and avoid corals with seaweed growth. This makes them susceptible to starvation in coral colonies that experience heavy algae growth during changes in water temperature and/or nutrient levels.
Raccoon Butterflyfish (Kikakapu Kapuhili)
This fish’s name is attributed to the black patches around its eyes resembling a raccoon. Raccoon butterflyfish are nocturnal and feed primarily on nudibranchs and small invertebrates. They are often found in small schools and can be seen feeding on algae and coral polyps during the day.
Threadfin Butterflyfish (Lau Hau)
Threadfin butterflyfish maintain a wide Indo-Pacific distribution. Those found in Hawaiʻi have a black spot on their dorsal fins, unlike their counterparts in the Red Sea. They tend to hide more than the ornate butterflyfish and thus are harder to spot without inspecting underneath the coral.
Yellow Longnose Butterfly Fish (Lau Wiliwili-nukunuku-oioi)
The yellow longnose butterflyfish is very territorial. These monogamous fish aggressively defend their territory by chasing out intruders. Males chase males and females chase females. Males keep other males from their mates, and females keep other females from their food source. They are not monogamous without the need to co-parent as they lay free-floating eggs, but their teamwork significantly increases their survival. Heterosexual pairs have been observed together for up to seven or more years.
Teardrop Butterfly Fish (Kika Kapulauhau)
These beautifully painted fish feature a black upside-down teardrop on their flanks and reach a maximum length of 7.9 inches (20 centimeters). Like other butterflyfish, they are monogamous and can be found in shallow reef flats, lagoons, and seaward reefs. They feed on soft and hard corals, small crustaceans, and filamentous algae.
Bluestripe Butterfly Fish (Lau Hau)
This particular species is rare and only found in the Hawaiian Islands! They inhabit shallow reef areas although it has recently been discovered that Bluestripes live at depths as deep as 600 feet. The horizontal blue lines along their yellow bodies make them very distinctive. These omnivorous fish need resource-rich environments where it is easier to find food. Thus, males of this species operate a harem system where they defend territory that includes up to four smaller females.
Four Spot Butterfly Fish (Lau Hau)
This fish’s name comes from the two white spots near its dorsal fin and tail on either side of its body. Four spots feed exclusively on hard corals and their abundance in a reef system is an excellent indicator of reef health. Recent global changes in climate, especially the beaching events of 2015-2016 due to rising ocean temperatures have caused noticeable changes in the Fourspot’s reproduction rates.
Rainbow Butterfly Fish (Lau Hau)
As suggested by its name, the rainbow butterflyfish is among the most colorful in the butterfly family. We often see these beauties at Mala Pier in Lahaina. The attractive stripe pattern contrasted by jet-black lines makes these fish some of the most enticing to photograph.
Lemon “Milletseed” Butterfly Fish (Lau Wiliwili)
This small yellow fish has tiny black spots along its flank in a vertical pattern. Although common in Hawaiʻi, they are only found in Hawaiʻi! 25% of Hawaiʻi’s reef fishes are endemic to the islands. That is an enormous number and part of what makes diving in Hawaii so unique. They are found down to depths of 820ft.
This schooling species is found in the water column and feeds on zooplankton. Breeding takes place between January and May and new juveniles can be found on inner reefs between April and June.
Potter’s Angelfish is another example of a species native only to the Hawaiian Islands. They are a rare occurrence and the bright orange and blue colors of the males make them a favorite find among avid divers. They spend much of their time at “cleaning stations” where they eat algae from the shells of green sea turtles and bodies of larger fish.
Yellowtail Wrasse (Lolo)
This wrasse is strong and can push rocks and coral over to find food beneath. With two prominent teeth in the upper jaw, the Lolo eats snails, hermit crabs, sea urchins, shrimps, and mollusks. They bury themselves in the sand at night. On Maui, they are commonly found on the west side of the island.
Saddle Wrasse (Hinalea Lauwili)
The saddle wrasse is the most abundant reef fish in the Hawaiian Islands due to its extraordinary ability to change sexes. The name comes from the red stripe or “saddle” reaching around its body behind its pectoral fin.
There are 43 different fish in the wrasse family and 13 of them are native to Hawaii. At Kahekili Beach Park or Airport Beach, there is a long-time resident saddle wrasse that circles our legs looking for food that lifts out of the sand while we practice our dive skills.
Juvenile Yellowtail Wrasse (Lolo)
Often mistaken for Nemo, this juvenile wrasse is brightly colored orange-red with white spots along its body. When email wrasses are overrepresented in a group they will often change sex to become male.
Pennant Fish or Banner Fish (Kihi Kihi)
These schooling fish can be found in the water column feeding on plankton. They can also be found eating algae from the backs of turtles. They are not to be mistaken for the Moorish idol, discussed next, and are often referred to as the false Moorish idol.
Moorish Idol (Kihi Kihi)
Often recognized as Gil from Finding Nemo, this distinct fish has beautiful yellow, white, and black markings with an extended dorsal fin. They can grow an impressive 10 inches in length and the older they get, the less prominent their dorsal fin becomes. In adulthood, they are often found alone.
Its name comes from the Moors of Africa who supposedly believed that the fish was a bringer of happiness. They are popular in the aquarium trade, however, have a hard time adjusting to life in captivity. They are picky yet voracious eaters and can become destructive.
Rainbow Cleaner Wrasse (Hinalea)
The Hawaiian rainbow cleaner wrasse, yet another endemic species, is famous for its cleaning services. They populate territories called “cleaning stations” where larger animals congregate to have parasites, loose flakes of skin, and mucus removed from their bodies. They can even be seen cleaning the gills and teeth of much larger fish and eels!
Bird Wrasse (Hinalea I Iwi)
The bird wrasse might be the easiest fish to identify with the male’s deep blue and green coloration. Females tend to be browner. Its prominent snout allows it to dig for prey and break it into small pieces. Like other wrasses, they can change sexes to adapt to the breeding environment.
Convict Tang (Manini)
Convict tangs are members of the surgeonfish family and are widely found along shallow reefs in Hawaiʻi. They are herbivores and spend much of their time during the day grazing on seaweed. These algae feeders play a crucial role in maintaining reef health. They stifle the growth of fast-growing algae that has the potential to choke the reef if left unchecked.
Manini was an important food source for early Hawaiians and is still consumed today. Manini in modern Hawaiian slang can mean “no big thing.”
Yellow Tang (Lauʻipala)
These brightly colored yellow fishes are perhaps some of the most recognizable Hawaiʻi reef fishes. Like the convict tang, they are members of the surgeonfish family. Blades at the end of their tails act as defense and to ward off competitors from feeding and shelter areas.
Yellow tangs are popular fish to acquire for the aquarium trade. As of 2021, Hawaii banned the collecting of aquarium fish pending a further environmental review. This controversial dispute is ongoing.
These easily recognizable fish are common inhabitants of shallow reefs. You can distinguish Parrotfish males by their brightly colored blue, green, pink, and yellow. Their sharp front teeth are used to graze on fine seaweeds that grow on rocks and dead corals. Indeed, Parrotfish bite off chunks of coral and convert those pieces into fine sand. Estimations show that large parrotfish produce as much as one ton of sand per year making this species very important to sand production and keeping coral reefs healthy.
It is easy to see where the trumpetfish gets its name. Their long bodies stalk the coral bed and stealthy attack prey by widening their jaws and sucking the victim up into their almost transparent bodies. The Nunu sometimes follow schools of surgeonfish feeding on small organisms forced from cover as they graze along the reef.
Bluespine Unicornfish (Kala)
Bluespine unicorn fish are common tangs. They have blueish-grey bodies with blue spines on each side of the base of their tails. A short bony horn protrudes from their forehead, hence their name. They can grow up to 27 inches in length.
Kala was an important food source in old Hawaiʻi and is still consumed today. The kalaʻs tough skin was stretched over half a coconut used to make a small knee drum.
Orangespine Surgeonfish (Umauma Lei)
This is another surgeonfish that is intrinsic to the health of Hawaiʻi’s shallow reefs. They graze on algae and keep it from getting out of control. Their grey bodies are treated to a color boost of two orange spines on either side of the base of their tails, and yellow coloring on their faces.
Rectangular Triggerfish (Humuhumunukunukuapua’a)
This is the Hawaiʻi state fish! The Rectangular Triggerfish has a famously long Hawaiian name, which you might overhear at the beach during your Maui vacation. Rectangular Triggerfish are plentiful and a common sighting for snorkelers and scuba divers in Maui. This aggressive-minded solitary fish spends its day digging for invertebrates buried in the sand. They can often be seen chasing other fish out of their territory or sometimes fleeing a predator by making grunting noises to warn other triggerfish. They are especially aggressive when guarding eggs.
Picasso Triggerfish (Humuhumunukunukuapua’a)
While not dangerous, the Picasso triggerfish are also quite aggressive. When guarding its nest it has even been known to chase divers and snorkelers. They are small and unlikely to do any harm, however. We most often spot these beautifully colored fish at Black Rock in Ka’anapali.
Hawaiian Damsel Fish (Alo’ilo’i)
Endemic Hawaiian damsels are small fish that are often seen swelling in and out of cauliflower corals as juveniles, and actively defending larger swathes of the reef as adults. They are foragers, yet territorial, and make distinct clicking noises when threatened. They will even dart at your hand or mask! Have no fear they are no bigger than 12.5cm. The males provide sole care of the offspring, unlike most animals. The females guard the territory that they grew up in.
Pinktail Triggerfish (Humuhumuhiʻukole)
These beauties can often be found swimming in shallow water and grow up to 16 inches in length. They are one of the largest triggerfish in the species.
Hawaiian Green Turtle (Honu)
Maui is home to some of the largest nesting grounds for Hawaiian green turtles. Once endangered, turtle populations have made a significant comeback in the recent past. They can reach lengths of up to 4 feet and weigh over 300 pounds. Of the seven types of sea turtles, the Hawaiian green turtle (native to Hawaiʻi) is the most common.
Turtles must breathe surface air but have been known to hold their breath for up to 5 hours! Though their eyesight is excellent underwater, they are nearsighted above water and on land.
The Hawaiian green turtle does not reach sexual maturity until 20 years of age with some reaching almost age 40 before mating for the first time! Males grow long thick tails, and female tails remain short.
They travel nearly 600 miles to lay their eggs every two years. The mother lays 75-100 eggs per nest in the sand away from the tide line. She will dig as many as 6 nests. Turtles lay eggs in the early summer months, and they take two months to hatch. Sex is determined by the temperature of the sand. The cooler the sand, the more males will hatch.
Early life is hard for turtles. NOAA estimates that only one in 1,000 to one in 10,000 will make it to adulthood. Their life span is estimated to be 50-150 years. After surviving in the open ocean for the first five to ten years, young turtles always return to their original coastal habitat.
White Mouth Moray Eel (Puhi)
White mouth Morays reach up to lengths of 4 feet in Hawaiʻi, although they can grow much larger in other parts of the world. We occasionally see eels hunting in tandem with the invasive peacock grouper. This paring is the only known cooperative hunting by any species of fish.
White mouth morays hunt at night. Their excellent sense of smell makes up for their poor eyesight. They have two sets of jaws and the second set pulls their prey toward their stomachs. While not inherently dangerous, getting too close could invite a quick lashing out from these cautious critters.
Day Octopus (He’e Mauli)
If you are lucky enough to see an octopus out hunting during the day, get ready for a delightful spectacle. Octopuses are masters of disguise and can change color and texture depending on their surroundings. Their pliable bodies and arms allow them to fit through tight spaces. The only hard structure they contain is a beak with a toothed tongue used to pick apart crustaceans and small fish.
Though they only see black and white, they rapidly focus their eyes at different depths taking in light from multiple directions. Therefore, they may be able to distinguish certain colors despite being color blind!
There is a saying in Hawaiian: Pua ke kō, kū mai ka heʻe (When the sugarcane flowers, the octopus appears) Once a staple crop of the Hawaiian Islands, sugar cane blooms in November when many believe octopuses are more abundant in the reef.
Commersonʻs Frogfish (Malamalama)
Another master of camouflage is the frogfish. Experienced divers are always on the hunt for these truly alien-like creatures. Their soft, textured bodies resemble a piece of coral or sponge because frogfish match their colors to their surroundings. Thus they can be found in many colors ranging from yellow to brown, orange, and multicolor. Frogfish have a special appendage that acts like a fishing lure to opportunistically attract unsuspecting organisms. While sometimes rare, we find them at all of our Kaʻanapali and Lahaina scuba diving locations!
The winner of Maui scuba diving camouflaged sea life is the scorpionfish. They are nearly impossible to spot since they look distinctly like the rocks they perch on top of. They are some of the most venomous creatures in the animal kingdom and are a perfect reason not to touch anything underwater. Their spines contain a poisonous mucus that is fatal to other animals but only extremely painful to humans.
The cream and brown colors of the lizardfish allow it to blend well with the sandy ocean floor. Lizardfish often bury themselves in the sand with their eyes exposed and can attack prey from distances of up to 6ft! 14 of the 50 species of lizardfish can be found on the Hawaiian Islands.
This recognizable member of the flatfish family looks just like it sounds. Juvenile flounders look like regular fish with eyes on either side of their bodies. As they mature, one eye will slowly drift to the other side of their heads. Thus, the adult flounder has two eyes facing upward that can rotate in any direction.
Spiny Lobster (Ula)
Spiny lobsters are much smaller than the lobsters that initially come to mind. There are three species of spiny lobster found in Hawaii. They can be hard to find since they like to hide during the day. Although they have been a delicacy in Hawaiʻi for many years, declining numbers have made them off-limits to commercial fishing.
Slipper Lobster (Ula-Papapa)
Referred to as “insects of the ocean” slipper lobsters donʻt discriminate when it comes to food. They lack large claws and reach about 7 inches in length in Hawaiʻi. In other parts of the world, they grow as long as 20 inches. They can often be seen foraging at night.
Spotted Eagle Ray (Hinimanu)
This graceful member of the eagle ray family tends to prefer water temperatures of 75 – 81 degrees, making Hawaiʻi waters an attractive area to frequent. Their lateral diamond-shaped bodies include several venomous barbs at the base of their long tails, with beautiful white dots on their heads and wings. They have been listed on the IUCN Red List as near threatened due to overfishing mainly in Southeast Asia and Africa.
They forage in the sandy bottom for crustaceans and mollusks. Their predators are mainly sharks. Since the females mature eggs within and give birth to live pups, sharks have been seen following pregnant females and feeding on the newly born eagle ray pups as well.
Whitetip Reef Shark (Manō)
These sharks are the most common reef shark sightings on shallow reefs around Maui. They are generally harmless to divers since their diet consists of small fish, octopus, and crustaceans. Unlike other sharks that must constantly swim to breathe, these sharks can pump water across their gills allowing them to rest on the bottom during the day.
They tend to hide in caves or crevices and typically return to the same shelters for months or even years. It is believed that their loyalty to certain areas inspired the Hawaiian belief in ʻaumākua, the spirits of family ancestors who take animal form and protect their descendants.
Their susceptibility to overfishing, coupled with a slow reproductive rate has led to their listing as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Hawaiʻi recently outlawed catching, harming, or killing sharks in state waters. If properly regulated this will help maintain their populations.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to Maui’s fish. Scuba diving in Maui makes for a truly memorable experience, which becomes even more enjoyable when you know what you are looking at! Certified divers can take the PADI Advanced Course, which features an elective that focuses solely on fish identification and reef ecology. We invite new divers and certified divers to purchase the excellent photography package which always highlights the beautiful fish you see scuba diving in Maui!