Thumbnail sketches of fishes you’re likely to see at dive destinations like Bonaire and Belize. Some Indo/Pacific species, a subjective and Caribbean-centric overview, not a comprehensive Fish I.D. Guide.
Angelfishes constitute some 86 species, most spread throughout the Indo-Pacific. Species in the Caribbean are limited to a handful, and you’re most likely to encounter the French Angelfish, Blue Angelfish (mostly blue bodies), Gray Angelfish (gray bodies) and Queen Angelfish (quite colorful bodies). Angels are among the few fishes that feed on sponges, as well as on tunicates and gorgonians.
LENGTH: Blue, French and Queen Angelfish: 8 to 14 inch; Gray Angelfish a little larger, Rock Beauties: 5 to 8 inches.
BALLOONFISH & PORCUPINEFISH
Balloonfish and Porcupinefish are both members of Family Diodidentae – the “Porcupinefish Family” – but they are different species, and the ones that have the more obvious spines are the balloons, not the porcupines. They’re both unobtrusive little guys with an ability to inflate into spiny basketball-shapes when disturbed. Any article about them feels an obligation to show them ballooned up, but recreational divers who are minding their manners are unlikely to see them in a puffed-up state. Big-eyed and gentle, permanently affixed with Mona Lisa smiles, they swim languidly – although as good bottom feeders, they’re agile at hovering. In fact, they’re often observed resting on the bottom.
LENGTH: Balloonfish: 8 to 14 inches, can grow as long as 20 inches; Porcupinefish: 1 to 2 feet, maximum 3 feet.
Barracudas encompass 28 species worldwide but only three in the Atlantic/Caribbean, and only one is called a Barracuda – specifically the Great Barracuda. With primitive, non-protrusible mouths, they rely on speed and stealth to attack prey fishes, striking and wounding, then circling back to finish and devour them. They look fierce but they’re unlikely to be a problem unless you mess with them.
LENGTH: Great Barracuda: Typically 1.5 to 3 feet, can grow to as much as 6 feet.
Butterflyfish encompass some 129 species worldwide, again, mostly in the Indo-Pacific basin. In the Caribbean you’re most likely to encounter only a handful, including the Spotfin Butterflyfish. They’re all little disc-shaped guys who swim around, usually, in mated pairs. Their body patterns help them confuse would-be predators and their pointed snouts equip them for plucking polyps out of coral cups.
LENGTH: Spotfin, Banded and Foureye Butterflyfish: 3 to 5 inches.
Blennies constitute a vague category encompassing more than 900 species worldwide, and a broad range of lifestyles. Mostly, they share the characteristic of being somewhat benthic – and only a few inches long. As bottom-dwellers, they’re likely to lack swim bladders. The types a casual diver is likely to encounter include Redlip Blennies, often found resting on corals in the Caribbean. And a little guy I have a weakness for: Secretary Blennies, who spend their lives poking their heads out of holes in the corals, capturing zooplankton.
LENGTH: Blennies are measured in inches; Secretary and Spinyhead Blennies: .75 and 1.5 inches; Redlip Blennies: 2.5 to 4.5 inches; Species like Pikeblennies: 2 to 4 inches.
Bermuda Chubs (Kyphosus sectatrix) are elliptical-shaped fishes found in tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide, which accounts for other common names like Pacific Chub, Pacific Drummer, gray drummer and white chub. There are actually many other fishes in other families called chubs – both freshwater and marine. I’ve focused on Bermuda chubs, the species most likely to be spotted on the reefs. Its colors may vary from silvery to grayish, with white and brown variations. Humann and DeLoach note that there are actually two species of chubs seen on the reefs – the other is the Yellow Chub (K. incisor) but that the two are virtually impossible to differentiate underwater. They feed mainly on algae, small crustaceans and mollusks…although I’ve never seen them feed on anything. I’ve most often seen them hanging out in small schools underneath boats and above wrecks.
LENGTH: Bermuda and Yellow Chubs: 1 foot, can grow to 2.
Chromis are members of the broad category of damselfish but they go by the own names, ‘damselfish” not included. They encompass more than 100 species worldwide. In the Caribbean, Blue and Brown Chromis are the little guys you’re most likely to encounter. They’re plankton feeders, hovering above reef heads, generally facing into the currents picking zooplankton from the passing waters. Brown Chromis (Chromis multilineata) are likely to be found in large aggregations, as at left. Blue Chromis (Chromis cyanea) generally make up smaller groups and stay closer to the reef.
LENGTH: Blue Chromis: 3 to 4 inches; Brown Chromis: 3 to 5.5 inches.
Clownfish and other Anemonefishes are a category of damselfish often discussed separately (see “Shades of Orange,” here). Found only in the Indo-Pacific, they encompass some two dozen species, mostly orange, but only one is actually called a Clownfish. False Clownfish lack the black motifs of true Clowns. Planktivores all, they live with sea anemones, finding protection in the anemones’ tentacles. They help the anemones by eating parasites and enriching anemone food supplies with poop.
LENGTH: Anemonefish: Typically 3 to 4 inches.
Damselfishes encompass a wide range of fishes in Family Pomacentridae, including some that actually get to include their damselness in their names, like Bicolor (Stegastes partitus), Dusky and Threespot Damselfish (S. planifrons). The family’s 250 species worldwide (mostly, as usual, found in the Indo-Pacific basin) also encompass more famous cousins known by the their own names, like Anemonefish, Chromis and Sergeantfish.
As a rule, Damsels are small – six inches or less, often less than three – with thin, oval-shaped bodies and forked tails. Adults of many species are somewhat muted in coloration but juveniles can be quite colorful. Dusky (S. adustus), Cocoa (S. variabilis) and Threespot Damsels (S. planifrons) specialize in tending little algae gardens and are quite feisty in defending them from intruders, including divers. Encountering a little Threespot and being given the Damselfish Stare of Intimidation is one of my favorite experiences on the reef.
LENGTH: Adult Bicolor Damsels: 2 to 3.5 inches; Threespot, Dusky and Cocao Damsels: 3 to 4 inches: Yellowtail Damsels: 4 to 6.5 inches.
Drums, as in Spotted Drums (Equetus punctatus), get their names because they produce a “drumming” sound. But you’ll really know them by their singular appearance – odd shapes, black and white strips and spots all over and a spectacularly elongated front dorsal fin. Juveniles show off even more spectacular dorsal fins. Spotting them is a find – they’re nocturnal, scrounging for invertebrates in the sand flats and seagrasses. During the day they hang out on the reef in crevices, under ledges and in entrances to recesses in the corals. Juveniles sometimes patrol back and forth just in front. The elongated fins shorten as they age. Their low-pitched rhythmic sounds are caused by muscles vibrating against their swim bladders. Close relatives are Jackknifes and even High Hats. Unusually, they all appear to be restricted to the Atlantic/Caribbean basin.
LENGTH: Adult Spotted Drums: 6 to 9 inches in length, can grow to 11.
Also in the Drum family (Family Sciaenidae) are Highhats (Pareques acuminatus). Typically 5 to 8 inches in length. Most common in the Florida Keys.
Eels may seem off-putting because of their snake-shaped bodies, menacing teeth and constant mouthing off but they’re respectable fishes, sure enough – fishes with long torsos and dorsal, tail and anal fins that run pretty much the length of their body. Pectoral fins are minimal, however. Frankly, they move like snakes, generally along the seabottom and through coral passages. Their habit of constantly opening and closing their mouths adds to the offputtingness, but it’s not threatening; it’s just the way they pump water through their gills to breathe.
All told, there are some 800 species of eels in 19 families worldwide, but in tropical reef terms we’re concerned with only three – Moray Eels in Family Muraenidae (about 200 species workdwide), Conger Eels in Family Congridae (more than 180 species worldwide, but we’re really just concerned with Garden Eels like the Brown Garden Eel, Heteroconger longissimus), and Family Ophichthidae (lots of species but we’re mainly concerned with the Sharptail Eel, Myrichthys breviceps).
They’re unlikely to bother you unless you go up to them and mess with them. Most are nocturnal hunters and you’re most likely to see them during the day extending their heads and upper bodies from crevices and holes, watching the world go by. They’re always up for grabbing a fishy prey of opportunity, but for many species their mainline diet is crustaceans and mollusks.
LENGTH: Green Moray Eels: Typically 3 to 5 feet in length, can grow to 7 or 8 feet; Spotted Morays: Typically 1.5 to 3 feet; Goldentail Morays: 1 to 1.5 feet; Sharptail Eels :1 to 3 feet; Brown Garden Eels: 8 to 15 inches.
Filefish encompass some 120 species worldwide, most in the Indo-Pacific. Prominent in the Atlantic/Caribbean are the Scrawled Filefish (Aluterus scriptus) and White-spotted Filefish (Cantherhines macrocerus, which has a whitespotted phase but just as likely to be seen in its orange phase). They derive their names from slender, long front dorsal spines that, with the support of small second spines, can raised and locked in place to make a predator’s process of eating them extremely difficult. Typically, the “files” are folded down and not obvious. They tend to be flattened with “rhomboid-shaped” bodies. the Scrawled Filefish tends to more elongated than the Whitespotted cousins. Both have terrific color-changing capabilities. To me, the Scrawled Filefish is among the most beautiful fishes on the reef.
LENGTH: Scrawled Filefish: 1 to 2.5 feet, can grow to 3 feet; Whitespotted Filefish: 10 to 15 inches.
Flounders are famously fishes that start out with typical-fish body shapes and morph into bottom-dwelling flatfishes that live sideways. With stalked eyes both on the same side, they have 360 degree vision. And, they have a spectacular ability to manipulate color patterns and disappear into the background. They’re members of the flatfish order (Order Pleuronectiformes) that includes more than 800 species ranging in size from about two inches (Tarphops oligolepis, a flounder found near Japan and Korea) to eight feet or more (Atlantic halibut, Hippoglossus hippoglossus. As divers on a Caribbean reef, the ones you’re most likely to encounter are Peacock Founders (Bothus lunatus).
LENGTH: Adult Peacock Flounders: 6 to 15 inches in length; Some other tropical species can be smaller: Cold water species like Winter and Summer Flounders: 2 to 3 feet.
Frogfishes encompass some 60 species of small, bottom-dwelling fishes found worldwide remarkable for their camouflage capabilities and skill as ambush experts. They’re often more lumpy than ‘fish-shaped” and it’s possible to gaze directly upon a frogfish and not know it’s there. For divers, they’re celebrity species and spotting one is a find. They’re considered members of the anglerfish group, since many species have a fleshy “lure” atop their heads, converted from the dorsal fin. When a small prey fish passes by, or even is attracted by the lure, they strike with lightning speed. Longlure Frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus) spotted in Bonaire.
LENGTH: Typically 3 to 5 inches but some species can grow larger, particularly in the Indo/Pacific.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: Reef Fish Identification Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Reef Fish Identification, Tropical Pacific, Gerald Allen, Roger Steene, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Marine Life, Caribbean, Bahamas, Florida, Marty Snyderman & Clay Wiseman; Reef Fish Behavior, Ned DeLoach; Peterson’s Field Guide to Atlantic Coast Fishes, C. Richard Robins, G. Carlton Ray, John Douglass; Discover Fishes, Florida Museum of Natural History; Marine Species Identification Portal; Assorted Fish Species Topics, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica.