Best Fish to Spot When Snorkeling the Caribbean

The next time you find yourself snorkeling in the Caribbean, keep a mental note of these extraordinary fish.

One of the easiest and most rewarding ways to connect with Mother Nature is snorkeling. With minimal training needed and relatively inexpensive equipment required, you can literally immerse yourself in the world of our marine neighbors at almost any coastal locale. Among the best places in the world to go snorkeling is the Caribbean. The next time you’re lucky enough to be snorkeling in the Caribbean, keep these extraordinary fish in mind.

Our friends at New World Publications created this top 10 list of must-see Caribbean fish for your next snorkeling and scuba-diving trips. Their photo editor, Eric Riesch, presents his personal favorites.

Queen Angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris)

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Queen Angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris)Eric Riesch / New World Publications

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 fish of the Caribbean 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.

Rock Beauty (Holacanthus tricolor)

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Rock Beauty (Holacanthus tricolor)Eric Riesch / New World Publications

Angelfish are among the most graceful swimmers on the reef, with a body shape most people associated 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.

The Rock Beauty is common throughout the Caribbean, living in harems comprised of a few small females and one large male. This fish in the Caribbean can be discovered as shallow as 10 feet below the surface.

Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda)

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Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda)Eric Riesch / New World Publications

This fish can be a bit unnerving to the beginning snorkeler because of its opening and closing mouth that reveals 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.

Barred Hamlet (Hypoplectrus puella)

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Barred Hamlet (Hypoplectrus puella)Eric Riesch / New World Publications

Another colorful group Caribbean fish species is the Hamlets, members of the Sea Bass family. Ranging from three to four 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.

Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus)

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Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus)Paul Humann / New World Publications

These grouper are one to two feet in length with brown bars over a light background. A black spot at 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.

Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride)

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Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride)Paul Humann / New World Publications

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.

Smooth Trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter)

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Smooth Trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter)Paul Humann / New World Publications

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 distinguish this species from the similar Spotted Trunkfish.

Longlure Frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus)

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Longlure Frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus)Eric Riesch / New World Publications

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 and is 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.

Longsnout Seahorse (Hippocamus reidi)

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Longsnout Seahorse (Hippocamus reidi)Eric Riesch / New World Publications

Seahorses captivate children of all ages, making them one of the most popular fish on the 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 heads away from snorkelers.

Queen Triggerfish (Balistes vetula)

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Queen Triggerfish (Balistes vetula)Paul Humann / New World Publications

Big, bold and beautiful, the Queen Triggerfish grows up to two 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 this fish.