Caribbean Snorkeling: Top 10 Fish

October 12, 2012

queen angelfish Photo by Eric Riesch | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Queen Angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris)
The color of this fish is so vibrant and beautiful that its likeness adorns almost every tourist t-shirt shop from St. Thomas to Aruba. The long trailing yellow and blue dorsal and anal fins flow like a gown on this queen of the Caribbean. A small dark speckled patch on the forehead resembles a “crown”, giving this species its name. Yellow rims on mid-body scales contrast the dark blue body. Common throughout the region, they can be found feeding on sponges or hiding among the sea fans. See the e-book.

rock beauty Photo by Eric Riesch | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Rock Beauty (Holacanthus tricolor)
Angelfish are among the most graceful swimmers on the reef, with a body shape most people associate with the word “fish”. A brilliant yellow forebody precedes a black mid-body, ending with a yellow tail. Lips are usually purple to blue. It repeatedly patrols a small territory on the reef and like all Angelfish, has a penchant for eating sponges. Common throughout the Caribbean living in harems comprised of a few small females and one large male. They can be discovered as shallow as 10 feet. See the e-book.

barracuda Photo by Eric Riesch | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda)
This fish can be a bit un-nerving to the beginning snorkeler because of its opening and closing mouth, revealing large teeth. This is not a display of aggression, but rather a method to push water through the gills. When approached slowly they will linger allowing the snorkeler to get quite close (attracted to the snorkeler’s splash of the fins at the surface). It has a silver coloration, a long cylindrical body and occasional dark blotches on the side. Common throughout the region, Barracuda often travel alone and swim just off the reef. When encountered near a school of baitfish, the hunting behavior of this species can be exhilarating to watch and get your heart pounding. See the e-book.


barred hamlet Photo by Eric Riesch | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Barred Hamlet (Hypoplectrus puella)
Another colorful group of fish on Caribbean reefs is the Hamlets, members of the Sea Bass family. Ranging from 3 to 4 inches in size, the Barred Hamlet is distinguished by the brown body bars on a background of white to yellow. Bright iridescent blue lines and spots on the head and forebody make this fish stand out. They swim close to the reef, giving them the ability to dart into holes and recesses when a predator approaches. Hamlets are simultaneous hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs and can use them interchangeably. They trade roles in the mating behavior around dusk each day. See the e-book.

nassau grouper Photo by Paul Humann | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus)
These grouper are one to two feet in length with brown bars over a light background. A black spot on the base of the tail and a notched dorsal fin between the forward spines are the distinctive features. After years of having their spawning grounds subjected to overfishing, the once common schools of Nassau Grouper have been decimated to the point of possible extinction. Population survey data from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) has led the way for calls to protect the spawning aggregation sites from fishing. With recent support from divers and government organizations I am hopeful this species will rebound for future generations to enjoy. See the e-book.

spotlight parrotfish Photo by Paul Humann | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride)
A top 10 list of fish to see in the Caribbean is not complete without mention of the colorful Parrotfish family. The terminal phase of the Stoplight Parrotfish is a rainbow of colors on an emerald green background. It has reddish brown mid-body scales, blue and purple on the dorsal and anal fins and yellow to orange on the ventral and tail fins. The defining characteristic is an unmistakable yellow spot above the gill cover similar to the warning on a traffic light. They are common throughout the Caribbean, found from 15 to 80 feet in depth. Parrotfish teeth have fused into beaks, allowing them to scrape algae from the porous skeletons of dead coral. You can actually hear them crutching underwater! See the e-book.


smooth trunkfish Photo by Paul Humann | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Smooth Trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter)
What first catches a snorkeler’s eye when observing the Trunkfish is an unusual square body shape, giving them the family namesake, Boxfish. They swim about the reef primarily using a rapid movement of the pectoral fins. Their dark body is covered with white spots, except for a honeycomb pattern on the mid-body. They are common throughout the Caribbean found from 15 to 80 feet in depth. A dark patch around the mouth helps to distinguish this species from the similar Spotted Trunkfish. See the e-book.

longlure frogfish Photo by Eric Riesch | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Longlure Frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus)
The Frogfish has several unusual characteristics, making it one of my favorites. Their ventral fins have evolved into foot-like appendages allowing them to walk along the bottom. Pectoral fins extend to the side like arms to help hold them in place. They have a lure (esca) that is cast out in front of them attached to a rod to attract prey (usually a smaller fish). Frogfish can be difficult to find since they have the ability to change color, camouflaging among sponges. If left undisturbed, frogfish will often remain in a small area for several weeks. See the e-book.

longsnout seahorse Photo by Eric Riesch | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Longsnout Seahorse (Hippocamus reidi)
Seahorses captivate children of all ages, making them one of the most popular fish on this list. Although uncommon throughout the Caribbean, they are seen with regularity at certain “special” sites. This is a shallow water species found from the surface down to 40 feet. This species varies in color from red to orange, yellow, white and black. Seahorses curl the base of their tail around branches for support. They are often shy and consistently turn their head away from snorkelers, especially those with a camera like me! See the e-book.


queen triggerfish Photo by Paul Humann | ©2012 Eric Riesch

Queen Triggerfish (Balistes vetula)
Big, bold and beautiful, the Queen Triggerfish grows up to 2 feet in size. They have long, dark blue trailing dorsal, anal and tail fins. The body is olive green to blue with purple to dark blue accents. The lower half of the head is yellow with two blue stripes from the snout outward to the gill cover. Small black lines radiate from the eyes. Often shy and difficult to approach, a patient snorkeler will be rewarded with a spectacular full fin display of the Queen Triggerfish. See the e-book.

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