hawaii marine wildlife and coral reef

Hawaii Marine Wildlife: Fish, Mammals, Invertebrates, Reefs

Let your mind wander to the overwhelming beauty of Hawaii’s marine wildlife and the vast knowledge it can provide! From colorful corals and vibrant sea creatures to the diverse ecosystems and rich history of the islands – learning about Hawaii’s marine life is a journey worth taking so that you can gain a deep appreciation for nature, enhance your creativity, expand your knowledge, connect with the community and share your passion. Let’s get started.

A Quick Look at Hawaii’s Marine Wildlife

  • 680 species of fish (with many tropical fish species you won’t see elsewhere)
  •  8 baleen whale species
  •  The world’s biggest humpback whale gathering during whale watching season
  •  23% of reef fish in Hawaii are native or endemic
  •  62% of Hawaii’s marine species are endemic.
  •  Amazing sea turtles
  •  Rays and sharks
  •  Unique and rare Hawaiian monk seals
  •  Pelagic seabirds
  •  Coral reef inhabitants and more!

The Hawaiian islands are the definition of marine paradise. The waters of Hawaii are home to an incredible array of wildlife, with over 680 species of fish and 8 species of baleen whales. There’s plenty to explore beneath the waves – sea turtles, tropical fish, rays, and you can even find the rare monk seals in these tropical waters.

What Makes Hawaii’s Marine Life Unique?

Hawaii is one of the world’s hotspots regarding unique aquatic life. 23% of reef fish in the islands are native or endemic to the area. That means that roughly two out of every ten fish you find here will only exist here – and nowhere else in the world! Not to mention 62% of all marine species living around the islands are exclusive to this region.

No matter where your travels take you in Hawaii, you’ll never be far from a beautiful coral reef teeming with vibrant colors and exotic creatures. Whether you’re snorkeling, diving, or simply observing from above, you won’t miss out on seeing fascinating underwater life. So don’t forget to take advantage of Hawaii’s marine ecosystem’s incredible sights and sounds!

Unique Fish Species, Sharks and Rays

Dive into the world of Hawaii’s exotic fish and discover their mesmerizing beauty.

From vibrant Picasso triggerfish to curious millet seed butterflyfish, there’s no shortage of unique species in Hawaiian waters. With a whopping 680 species of fish, 23% native and endemic to the region, you can find everything from yellow tangs to bandit angelfish swimming around the islands.

Check out its rays if you want to explore Hawaii’s marine life without fear! Manta– and spotted eagle rays are peaceful species found in Hawaii’s crystal clear waters. They make for an incredible snorkeling experience and deep spiritual significance in Hawaiian culture.

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In the Hawaiian language, these animals are called ‘mano’ and considered protective spirits known as aumakua. This belief goes back centuries and still holds strong today – so when you come across one of these majestic sea creatures in the water, you better show them some respect.

But that’s not all! You’ll also come across some beautiful saddle wrasses if you’re lucky – these colorful creatures are known for their bright blues and greens, making them an eye-catching addition to any dive site. So whether you’re snorkeling or scuba diving, take a few moments to appreciate the beauty of Hawaii’s marine life. Here are some of the fish you can find in Hawaii:

  • Smooth seahorse
  • Blacktip reef shark
  • Hawaiian squirrelfish (‘ala’ihi)
  • Hawaiian turkeyfish or lionfish
  • Hawaiian white-spotted toby
  • Potter’s angelfish
  • Wrasse fish
  • Hawaiian cleaner wrasse
  • Devil scorpionfish
  • Hawaiian spotted eagle ray, bonnet ray, duck bill ray, or spotted duck-billed ray
  • Conger eel and garden eel
  • Giant Trevally
  • Gray reef shark
  • Scalloped hammerhead shark
  • Moray eel
  • Sandbar shark
  • Tiger shark
  • Common longnose butterfish (forcipiger flavissimus)
  • Whitetip reef shark
  • Angel fish or angelfish
  • Bandit angelfish
  • Wahoo (Ono)
  • Pacific blue marlin
  • Yellowfin Tuna (Ahi)
  • Swordfish
  • Sailfish


Get up close and personal with Hawaii’s incredible invertebrates and marvel at their intricate designs.

Hawaii isn’t just about the fish. From lobsters and crabs to octopuses and shrimps, many fascinating invertebrates live on the ocean floor and coral reefs. And they don’t disappoint when it comes to color – think deep purples, fiery oranges, and electric blues.

One example is the reticulated cowry, a shellfish with a stunning array of patterns and stripes. It’s worth taking a closer look at these little guys, as each has its unique pattern. Plus, with so many shapes and sizes, you won’t be bored for long. Here are some of the invertebrates of Hawaii:

  • Spin lobster
  • Sea urchin
  • Sea cucumber (loli)
  • Sea stars
  • Cone snail
  • Broad stingray

Reptiles: Green Sea Turtles

Learn about the mythical status of green sea turtles in Hawaiian culture and their unique adaptations.

The green sea turtle has achieved almost mythic status in Hawaiian culture and is protected under the Endangered Species Act. These animals can grow up to four feet long and weigh up to 500 pounds! They have unique adaptations, such as flippers that help them navigate the water and a shell that protects them from predators. You can find them foraging for food along the coastline or sunning on the beach. Here are the reptiles you can find in Hawaii:

  • Hawaiian green sea turtle (honu)
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Cephalopods: Day Octopus (Octopus cyanea)

Day octopuses are intelligent and sophisticated creatures that live in the ocean. With 500 million neurons, 60% of which can be found in their arms, they have one of the highest neuron-to-body ratios among animals. They can change their skin color and texture to camouflage with their environment, and their arms have suckers along their entire length, allowing them to “walk” across coral reefs. The largest day octopus grows up to 4-5 pounds and has an arm span of 3ft. In addition to using their arms to move around, they also use their beaks to pick apart crustaceans and fish for food. Lastly, these fascinating creatures have only a single photoreceptor, meaning they can only see black and white.

In Hawaiian culture, the day octopus is seen as a deity of the ocean known as Kanaloa. An old saying, “Pua ke ko, ku mai ka he’e,” translates to “When the sugarcane flowers, the octopus appears,” meaning that when sugarcane starts flowering, it’s a good time for fishing since the octopus will likely make an appearance. Some of the cephalopods you can find in Hawaii are:

  • Day Octopus (Octopus cyanea) or heʻe mauli
  • Night Octopus (Callistoctopus ornatus, ornate octopus) or heʻe pūloa

Mammals: Baleen Whales, Humpback Whales and Hawaiian Monk Seals

Discover why humpback whales migrate thousands of miles yearly to reach Hawaii’s shores.

Hawaii is home to fin, sei, and blue whales, but the humpback whale is one of the most well-known. Every year, hundreds of humpbacks migrate thousands of miles from Alaska to breed and give birth in the warm waters of Hawaii. Whale-watching tours are offered throughout the islands during peak season (December – April) when these magnificent creatures come closest to shore.

Meet the adorable Hawaiian monk seal and learn about their challenges in their natural habitat.

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world, with a population of only 1,100. I mean, how cute are they? Unfortunately, these guys face many threats in their natural habitat, including fishing entanglement, plastic pollution, and habitat loss. But despite these obstacles, they still manage to survive by foraging for food offshore at night and diving up to 300 feet with a 6-minute breath hold. Here are some of Hawaii’s most famous mammals:

  • Hawaiian monk seal
  • Humpback whale
  • Hermit crabs

Spinner Dolphins

Dive into the fun world of spinner dolphins as they show off their acrobatic abilities.

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Spinner dolphins are common in Hawaii due to their distinctive shape, nicks, and notches. Although they can be found far out in the open ocean, they often rest near shore in sandy-bottom bays. You may see them spinning and jumping above the surface in acrobatic displays when they feel playful. It’s truly a magical experience!

Hawaii’s Stunning Coral Reefs

Immerse yourself in the vibrant world of Hawaii’s coral reefs and witness the colorful ecosystems they support.

Head to Hawaii’s coral reefs if you want to get right in among the action. Here, you’ll find over half a dozen species of coral, home to countless different types of marine life. From tropical fish to sponges, sea urchins, and pelagic seabirds, these vibrant ecosystems offer something for everyone.

The Kona Coast is particularly impressive, boasting the greatest concentration of coral in the whole of Hawaii. As you explore this underwater paradise, watch for rarer species like brain and flower coral – you won’t see them anywhere else.

  1. Take time to stop and appreciate the beauty of Hawaii’s diverse aquatic life.
  2. Look closely at the invertebrates and marvel at their intricate designs.
  3. Dive into the coral reefs and witness the colorful ecosystems they support.
  4. Watch for rare species such as brain coral and flower coral.

Hawaiian Culture and the Ocean

The ocean has been integral to Hawaiian culture since ancient times when voyagers traveled from island to island. The ocean played a considerable part in the creation myth, or “Kumulipo.” The chant tells us how the islands formed and how man emerged from the ocean’s depths.

Hawaii’s people have long depended on the ocean for sustenance, with fishing being a significant part of everyday life. Even today, some communities still practice traditional techniques like spearfishing and netting to get food.

Hawaii’s Marine Life: Rated Highest

With beautiful beaches and stunning underwater scenery, it’s no surprise that Hawaii consistently ranks amongst the top diving destinations in the world. And because it’s home to abundant non-aggressive shark and ray species, you don’t have to worry about unwanted encounters!

So if you dip in the warm waters of Hawaii, you’ll find yourself surrounded by colorful coral reefs teeming with vibrant marine life. Whether you’re looking for whales, dolphins, turtles, or curious little fish, there’s something here for everyone!