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Related FAQs: Passer/King Angels, Baja/Trop. E. Pacific Angelfishes, Marine Angelfishes In General, Selection, Behavior, Compatibility, Health, Feeding, Disease,   

Other Regional Accounts of Marine Angels: Red Sea, Caribbean, Maldives

Related Articles: The Marine Angelfish family, Pomacanthidae, Best for Aquarium Use

/Appropriate Marine Selections

The King or Passer Angel of the Tropical Eastern Pacific

By Bob Fenner

A gaggle of Passer Angels in the Galapagos

Angelfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Like the better known Queen (Holacanthus ciliaris) on the eastern side of the Central American the King Angel is beautiful, adaptable and intelligent; a worthy addition to a fish-only, fishes with live rock or rough and tumble invertebrate system of size. As larger species of the Angelfish family go, the King is not too expensive to acquire at small to moderate size, and almost always arrives at retailers/etailers in good-to-go shape. It's relatively disease-resistant and accepting of most all types of prepared and fresh foods.

    Unlike most aquarium hobbyists, I was of good fortune to meet this fish on its own turf years ago, while dive/drive traveling in Mexico's Baja California. Back in the later 1960's and 70's gasoline south of the border from San Diego was in the 30 some cents a gallon range... and cervezas were in the same price range... Hence, vamos al sur! Off to the Sea of Cortez (nee Gulf of California) for fishing, diving, general R&R. Ahh, the Mar de Cortes... by some counts "the world's largest fish bowl"; a treasure. On an early go to L.A. Bay I saw my first Passer Angels (note, not "Passer's"; this fish is not monikered for an individual but for the Latin word "passer" for the swallow, a bird of similar grace).

    As tiny to small individuals of a few inches, this fish can be found commonly throughout its range, flitting about

Distribution, Size:

    Semi-tropical to tropical Eastern Pacific; Baja California to Peru, including offshore islands (Revillagigedos, Galapagos...), from shallow water rocky reefs to at least 250 foot depths. Mostly aquarium specimens are collected out of Baja, Mexico, which is currently allowing the collection and export of ornamental marines. Common maximum size is about 9 inches overall; with some males attaining a foot in length. 

A two inch juvenile in captivity
A three inch juvenile in captivity
A 3.5 incher in the Galapagos
A four inch juvenile at the SIO Aq.
An eight inch male at Cabo San Lucas,
Baja California's end.
A ten inch female in the Galapagos.
Verticals (Full/Cover Page Sizes Available
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The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

    As Pomacanthids go, the King is a fighter... Not only one to a tank, but only one Angel species/specimen should be stocked in a given system, unless it is HUGE! Some folks have had success with keeping an adult and juvenile Passer together, speculating that the great difference in color and markings may well afford some deference from persecution.
    I will not be remiss in losing the opportunity to mention the possibility of devising a biotope of sorts if you intend to keep this fish. There are at least a handful of fish species from the same habitats that find their way into the petfish trade: The Lollipop/Cortez/Paddlefin Wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum), the Mexican Hogfish, Bodianus diplotaenia, the expensive blue spotted Jawfish, Opistognathus rosenblatti; the hardy the Butterfly that is the Barberfish, Johnrandallia nigrirostris, the leather bass Epinephelus dermatolepis, the gold snapper, Lutjanus viridis... And whether they're collected from there or not (Not are generally cheaper), there are a bunch more species that do encompass the same Eastern Pacific range:
Hemipteronotus taeniourus Dragon Wrasse, Rockmover
Thalassoma lutescens Yellow, Sunset Wrasse
Oxycirrhites typus Longnose Hawkfish
Acanthurus nigricans (glaucopareius) Gold-rim Surgeon
Forcipiger flavissimus Longnose butterflyfish
Gymnomuraena (Echidna) zebra Zebra Moray Eel
Arothron meleagris Guinea Fowl Puffer
Ostracion meleagris Blue and Black Boxfish

Unfortunately, not many invertebrates that are "very" compatible are currently collected from this geographic expanse... This will change in time.

    Featherdusters, other worms, definitely palatable sponges will be sampled. Cleaners are generally recognized and left alone.

A captive Passer being serviced by the most common Cleaner Wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus.


    Most importantly, Passer Angel tanks need to be large... hundreds of gallons. This is a wide and free-ranging species that does extremely poorly being hemmed in by too small confines. A habitat mimicking a rocky patch reef akin to the natural would be ideal. If keeping a small (a few inches) specimen, a good deal of spacing to get into and amongst nooks and crannies will be appreciated. Larger specimens should be afforded at least a few such caves, swim-throughs to grant a sense of being able to get away.

    Though the land in this fish's range can be quite "toasty", due to the prevailing water currents on the west coasts of continents, the water, even near the equator, runs on the cool side. A compromise should be struck for all life in your system that encompasses the natural middling thermal range of this fish... in the low to mid 70 F.s. Set your thermostats for this area and don't be overly concerned if ambient weather causes periodic drifts to higher temp.s.


    Thus far, all specimens of Passer/King Angels are wild-collected. Thankfully, this is a very tough species, as the collection, holding and transport from native waters is indeed arduous. Having been involved in this process on several occasions, through all aspects, I assure you that it's tiring for the humans as well.

    Small, an inch or two, to medium 3-4 inches overall, individuals are best for aquarium use, as they adapt best to captive conditions. Some folks routinely quarantine all fishes, and non-fish livestock ahead of placing in their main/display systems. The King Angel is an exception to my general rule of encouraging such isolation. This species if far better routinely dipped/bathed to "knock off" external parasites and placed in their permanent home. Too much stress ensues if it is placed in small confines, and most all imported individuals are "clean".


    More eager eaters do not exist. Passer Angels are the equivalent of Labrador Retriever dogs... gratefully taking in all types of foods in large amounts if available. In the wild this species principally consumes live sponge and algal material, with the balance made up of benthic invertebrates of small size (worms, molluscs...). In captivity Kings will consume pelleted, dried, frozen/defrosted... Having a goodly amount of live rock present and taking care to rotate in some new on a regular basis is key to maintaining the health of small to large specimens.


    Fishbase.org lists the species as monogamous, pairing... I have observed this fish mainly as solitary individuals along its coastal distribution, and in groups of tens to a hundred or so individuals in the Galapagos. Records of spawning behavior paint the "typical" Angel pattern with activity occurring just before or after sunset, the male swimming about, directing the female toward the surface, well away from the bottom. Nuzzling of the female's vent precedes release of buoyant eggs that are fertilized with the parents high-tailing back to the safety of cover and the gametes given to the nature of currents. The planktonic young hatch out in 18-30 hours and commence feeding on small plankton. Days to weeks can pass before suitable settling space is drifted over and chemically detected... with "lucky" individuals sinking, settling down, going from transparent (to avoid predators and sunburn) to color, hiding amongst rubble et al. on rocky reefs.

    Should you be interested in pairing, keeping two individuals in the hopes of their breeding, the King can be sexed by careful observation of pelvic fin color. Males have white pelvics and those of females are slightly yellow.


    One of the three "Amigo" angels of the genus Holacanthus found in the Eastern Pacific, the King or Passer, is a candidate for centerpiece specimen in suitable settings. In particular, if you've dreamed, or even better, actually visited w/in this fish's extensive range, I encourage you to devise a biotopic presentation for optimizing its health and display.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Axelrod, Herbert R. & Cliff W. Emmens. 1982. Exotic Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, N.J..

Campbell, Douglas. 1981. Marines: Their Care & Keeping; Holacanthus-Apolemichthys, Pts. I & II, 3,4/81.

Kerstitch, Alex. 1981. Cortez Angelfish, Pomacanthus zonipectus. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium, 10/81.

Moenich, David. 1987. Angel Food. Tropical Fish Hobbyist, 6/87.

Moenich, David. 1990. Marine Angelfish: Holacanthus. Aquarium Fish Magazine, 8/90.

Stratton, Richard. 1988. The King Angel, Holacanthus passer. Tropical Fish Hobbyist, 8/88.

Stratton, Richard. 1994. Practical Angels. Tropical Fish Hobby-ist, 9/94.

Thomson, Don; Findley, Lloyd & Alex Kerstitch. 1979. Reef Fishes of the Sea of Cortez (The Rocky Shore Fishes of the Gulf of California). Wiley-Interscience.

Thresher, R.E.. 1984. Reproduction in Reef Fishes, Pt. 3 Angelfishes (Pomacanthidae). Tropical Fish Hobbyist, 12/84.

Angelfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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