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Related FAQs: Fishes of Hawai'i, Articles on: The Best Butterflyfishes of Hawai'i, Triggerfishes of Hawai'i

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A Fishwatcher's Guide to the Marine  Fishes of Hawai'i

Part 1 of 5, To: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 

Bob Fenner

  Along the trail at Makalawena Beach on Hawaii's big island.

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Family/Species Accounts of Fishes Of  Tropical Hawai'i

Sharks, Subclass Elasmobranchii. Of the forty species of sharks found in Hawai'i, half are deepwater organisms, and all are too large for aquarium use. Two species do come into the trade every now and then, albeit by accident. Juvenile Black Tipped Reef Sharks, Carcharhinus melanopterus (3) and more infrequently White-Tipped Reef Sharks, Triaenodon obesus (3), are caught "by accident" from time to time by haplessly swimming into a tropical fish collectors barrier net. Such "bonus" catches are gratefully gathered and sold at high price (a few hundred dollars) to wholesalers.

Both species reach several feet in length, so these sharks should only be exhibited in Public Aquariums. If you must try a marine shark, please consider one of the smaller Cat Shark (family Scyliorhinidae) (2) and Bamboo Shark (family Hemiscyliidae) (2) species offered in the trade; and do your husbandry homework in advance.

Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos (Bleeker 1856), the Grey Reef Shark. Indo-Pacific, including the Red Sea, to the Tuamotus. Dark gray to bronze above, white below. Caudal and underside tips of pectorals, pelvics with  conspicuous black margins. Males to eight feet, females to five. These photographed in Moorea, Fr. Polynesia.

Carcharhinus melanopterus (Quoy & Gaimard 1824), the Blacktip Reef Shark. Indo-West to Central Pacific, including the Red Sea. To six feet in length. Litters of  2 to 5 pups. Offered in the aquarium trade regrettably all too often. Requires very large systems. Public Aquarium photo.

Triaenodon obesus (Ruppell 1837), the Whitetip Reef Shark. Indo-Pacific, including Red Sea and eastern Pacific. Here sitting under a ledge off Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, and below, cruising over the reef in Fiji. To about six feet in length. Only dangerous if molested. A typical view of one sitting on the bottom in Hawai'i at right, and one swimming in Fiji. 

Sphyrna lewini (Griffith & Smith 1824), the Scalloped Hammerhead. Found around the world in cool to tropical waters. To thirteen feet in length. This visitor off Hurghada, Egypt, Red Sea was about eight feet long. 


Manta birostris (Donndorff 1798), a/the Manta Ray. The paddle-like extensions on the head used for directing food into this filter feeders mouth. Third largest fish species at more than 6.7 meters in width, two tons in weight. Circumtropical. This one at a cleaning station in Australia.

Ecotype for both species: Uncommon in all marine habitats, shallows to open water.


Morays, family Muraenidae.

The Hawaiian Islands are the land of the Puhi (native lingo for eels). According to some authors these snake-like fishes not only make up the biggest predator pressure on the reefs, but weigh in as the most fish-mass there as well.

Indeed there are thirty eight (not a typo) species of moray eels in Hawai'i, only the wrasses have more species here. Most get too big, mean (eat their tankmates, bite you), and apt to jump out for aquarium use, but two of the muraenids deserve their captive popularity. The Zebra Moray, Gymnomuraena zebra (1) and Snowflake Moray, Echidna nebulosa (1), lack the fierce dentition of their piscivorous kin, being specialized crustacean crushers, preferring to eat crabs in the wild. The Zebra can attain some five feet in length, and the Snowflake more than two, but they generally are much smaller in aquarium use.

Though I don't endorse the use of the many other morays of Hawai'i for the above stated reasons, we should mention some of them as they are offered in the trade. The first and most commonly offered "variety" is the notorious "miscellaneous" Hawaiian Moray eel; not a species, but several. Be careful here. Some of these Morays grow to several feet and thicker than your thigh. You want to know exactly which species you're dealing with and its natural history. Of the "miscellaneous" category, you'll find the Tiger Moray, Scuticaria tigrina, Whitemouth Moray, Gymnothorax meleagris, Yellowmargin Moray, G. flavimarginalis, among others. All (here we go again) get big, nasty, and jump or push their way out of aquariums, and therefore rate a (3).

The Snowflake, Starry, or Diamond-Backed Moray, Echidna nebulosa (Ahl 1789) is a fabulous aquarium species; small, compatible with other fish species and adaptable to captivity. It is certainly the most peaceful, outgoing and desirable moray species. To about thirty inches total length. Base color of silver gray with black and yellow "snowflakes" randomly sprinkled over the lower body.


Dragon morays, Enchelychore pardalis from Hawaii are striking with white bodies and variegated black, yellow and red markings. Their name derives from the presence of elongate, pointed jaws and long posterior nostril tubes. They command a high price for their beauty and adaptability, and are worth it.     Attractive to a lesser degree, but frequently seen in the trade, the Mediterranean Muraena helena reaches the about half the Dragon Moray's length, about two feet.

Gymnomuraena zebra, the aptly named Zebra Moray is a slow-moving chocolate black with vertical white striped beauty. (photo). The suitability for aquaria of the species is reflected in longevity records. Our old service company had some in rentals for fifteen years. There are twenty-something year citations. 

Gymnothorax eurostus (Abbott 1861), Stout Moray. Light brown with gold spots, tubular nostrils. To about 2 foot in length. Indo-Pacific. Most common moray species in nearshore Similar to the also common Yellow-Margin Moray, but with a more pointed snout and dark spots on the forward half of the body. Hawaii pix.  

Gymnothorax flavimarginatus (Ruppell 1830). The Yellow Margin Moray, or puhi paka in Hawaiian. Black spot on gill opening, yellowish green margin on the fins. Indo-Pacific. To four feet in length but girthy. Common in Hawaii where it is often "tamed" by dive companies. Hawaii pix. 

Gymnothorax javanicus (Bleeker 1859), Giant Moray. To ten feet, 3 meters in length. Indo-Pacific; Red Sea, East Africa to Hawai'i. Feeds principally on fishes, secondarily on crustaceans. Largest Moray species according to Fishbase. Shown here in the Red Sea and Fiji. 

Gymnothorax meleagris (Shaw & Nodder 1795), the White Mouth Moray. Brown to black with numerous white spots. Dark spot around gill opening. Indo-Pacific. Most common Hawaiian puhi/moray. To about forty inches in length. Hawai'i images of small (ten inch or so) and adult (three feet) individuals. 

Gymnothorax rueppelliae (McClelland, 1844), the Banded Moray. Indo-Pacific: Red Sea and East Africa, to the Hawaiian, Tuamoto, and Marquesan islands. Feeds on fishes and crustaceans, mainly at night. Wary and often aggressive. Grows to roughly 31 inches (80cm). Bands more prominent in juveniles, fade as the animal gets older. Also distinctive brown spot at the back of the mouth, helps ID this eel. This one hiding in the coral at night, of Kona, Hawai'i.
Gymnothorax undulatus (Lacepede 1803), the Undulated Moray. Indo-Pacific; East Africa to the French Polynesia, Hawai'i. To five and a half feet in length. This one in Hawai'i. 

Scuticaria tigrina Lesson 1830, the Tiger Reef Eel. Indo-Pacific; East Africa to the tropical eastern Pacific, including Hawai'i. To 120 cm. in length. Secretive, nocturnal. Found foraging between rocks at night. Aquarium photo. 

Oh yes, there is one other "non-miscellaneous" large moray worth noting. The Dragon Moray, Enchelycore pardalis (formerly Muraena pardalis) we'll give it a (2). Though it shares the same traits as other large Hawaiian muraenids, due to its high cost perhaps, aquarists tend to provide it better care and keep it longer.

Ecotype: Shallow to mid-depth reefs to bays, rocky habitats. Hide in recesses by day, coming out at night to feed.

Other Eels: Occasionally Snake Eels (family Ophichthidae), Conger Eels (family Congridae) and other species of families of true eels are offered out of Hawai'i. They should not be. Most require very specialized care and die quickly (3).

Conger cinereus Ruppell 1830, the Mustache Conger. Indo-Pacific. To four feet in length. Found in holes in rocky caves near the bottom. Looks like a sea monster, but is a gentle giant. Hawaii pic during the day.

Lizardfishes, Family Synodontidae: 17 species described from HI, some from deeper than divers care to go. Found on or under the sand where they wait in stealth to grab small fishes, crustaceans, squids for food. Sometimes follow divers about apparently for opportunities of "light-stunned" fish prey by flash photographers.

Saurida flamma Waples 1982, the Orangemouth Lizardfish. To 13 inches. Hawai'i, Australs and Pitcairn Island. Hawai'i pix taken at night off of Kailua showing the orangish lower jaw. 

Synodus binotatus Schultz 1953, the Twospot Lizardfish. Dual small black spots on the snout. To about 7 inches/18 cm. Indo-Pacific. Here in HI.

Synodus variegatus (Lacepede 1803), the Reef Lizardfish. Most common species (out of seventeen) in Hawai'i. To more than ten inches in length. Indo-Pacific. Kailua-Kona, HI and Fiji images

The Frogfishes or Anglers, Family Antennariidae.

At least five of the seven species of cryptic, globular Frogfishes found in Hawai'i are sold in the trade, almost always within three designations: (Assorted) Hawaiian Angler, (Assorted) Colored Hawaiian Angler, and Dwarf or Pygmy Hawaiian Angler. The first two categories are generally "plain" (brownish, mottled) to more "colorful" (red, yellow, orange, black, gray) Commerson's Frogfish, Antennarius commersonii, though other species are mixed in. The smaller (a few inches) are principally just juveniles of the larger species but you may happen upon an occasional "true" miniature species like Randall's, A. randalli and the Reticulated Frogfish, Antennatus tuberosus. I'll rank all the Frogfishes (2) for their historical losses due to rough handling, and either starvation in captivity or propensity for swallowing other fish tankmates (even larger than themselves). If you're going to keep an angler (one to a tank, because they will also eat each other), take care in selecting fellow livestock (too big to be sucked down), and providing adequate food (generally live, but not all consumed by the other livestock).

Ecotype: Hidden by shape, color, fleshy appendages, resting on rocky bottoms, "waiting" for a meal to come by or "fishing" for it.

Part 1 of 5, To: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 

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