Thumbnail Sketches of fishes you’re likely to see at dive destinations like Bonaire and Belize. Subjective and Caribbean-centric; not a comprehensive Fish I.D. Guide.
Goatfish, encompassing some 86 species worldwide, get their name from the pairs of goatee-resembling barbels extending from their chins that they use to probe the sand or holes in the reef for food. The barbels are chemosensitive, letting them search out the scents of worms, clams, crustaceans or whatever is hidden in there. When they detect something edible, they plunge their snouts right into the sediment. The guys ate left are Spotted Goatfish (Pseudupeneus maculatus).
LENGTH: Spotted Goatfish: Typically to 8 inches, up to 11 inches. Yellow Goatfish: Typically 6 to 12 inches, up to 15.
Gobies are small bottom-dwelling fishes found in some 200 species worldwide. They range in color from drab to colorful. You may pass over some white, almost translucent species on the sandflats without recognizing them. The most familiar for reef divers are the Cleaning Gobies (both a specific species, Elacantinus genie, and a general terms for all Gobies that clean. Most often, cleaning gobies are seen resting on corals waiting for a chance to rid larger client fishes of dead scales and parasites. But Glass Gobies are abundant, swimming in small schools in protected reef areas, and shrimp gobies live in burrows on the seafloor in symbiosis with shrimps.
LENGTH: Gobies like Neon and Sharknose: Typically between 1 and 1.5 inches in length; Masked or Glass Gobies: Typically .75 to 1.25 inches. Some other species can run up to 4 inches.
GROUPERS, CONEYS AND FAMILY SERRANIDAE:
Groupers include a dozen or so larger fishes – up to three or four feet – generally characterized by heavy bodies, big mouths and slow movements (although even large groupers can shoot like a bullet when they want to) – Nassau Groupers, Tiger Groupers, Black Groupers and other fish thaat bear grouper nomenclature.
But the 450 or species in Family Serranidae also include medium-sized fsihes like Coneys, Graysbys, Red Hinds and Rock Hinds. And they encompass small guys like Harlequin Bass and really small ones like Fairy Basslets.
• Nassau Groupers (Epinephelus striatus),Black Groupers (Mycteroperca bonaci),Tiger Groupers (Mycteroperca tigris) and the up-to-eight-feet long Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara), of course, are the celebrity stars of the Grouper group.
They tend to favor a diet of fish, octopuses and crustaceans. With few teeth in their jaws, they swallow prey whole and grind it up with pharyngeal teeth. Like most piscivores, they hunt during the twilight hours but Nassau groupers are often seen hanging around during daylight hours hoping to get lucky with a chance to ambush unlucky prey. Sadly, due to overfishing, the grouper populations have diminished significantly in recent years.
• Coneys (Cephalopholis fulva), Graysbys (Cephalopholis cruentataI), Red Hinds (Epinephelus guttatus) and Rock Hinds (Epinephelus adscensionis) are smaller (up to 10 or 15 inches), less bulky-bodied members of the grouper family. Probably because they’re smaller and less-fished, thery’re more abundant. You’re most likely to see them hovering just above the bottom or even resting on their pectoral fins on corals or sponges, sometimes being cleaned.
• Greater Soapfish (Rypticus saponaceus) are one of the more unusual sights you’ll see on the reef: six- to 12-inch fish lying on the bottom resembling dead bodies. Actually, they’re just resting before going off at night to feed on smaller fishes. The name and disgusting appearance reflect the toxic mucus the secrete on their bodies.
• Sea Bass is one of those names applied to various groups of fishes in various families. The ones you’re most likely to see on the reef – at least Caribbean reefs – are somewhat colorful little (1½-3 inches) guys you’re likely to overlook unless you pay attention. That is, sea basses like the Harlequin Bass (Serranus tigrinus), Chalk Bass (Serranus totogarum) and Tobaccofish (Serranus tabacarius). By and large they stay near the bottom and hunt out small crustaceans.
• Fairy Basslets (Gamma loreto) are in the 1.5 to 3 inch range but seem smaller. That may be because they flit around coral ledges and overhangs, sometimes appearing to swim upside down along overhang surfaces. Either because of their intense purple/yellow bodies or their flitiness, I’ve found them very hard to get sharp photos of. Although pros seem to be able to do so. But then, they spend their lives waiting to shoot photos.
LENGTH: Goliath Groupers: Up to 8 feet.; Nassau and Tiger Groupers: typically 1 to 2 feet, 4 feet maximum. Black Groupers: Typically a little larger.
Coneys and Grasybys: Typically 6 to 10 inches; Red and Rock Hinds: Typically 8 to 15 inches.
Harlequin Bass and other Sea Basses: Typically 1.5 to 3 inches, Fairy Basslets 1.5 to 3 inches.
Grunts are the colorfully striped fish that Caribbean divers encounter in small-to-medium-sized schools, just seeming to be hanging around like kids on the block. These stripey fishes in Family Haemulidae are so ubiquitous in the Atlantic/Caribbean that I was surprised to discover that they’re found only in the Atlantic/Caribbean.
Typically, they’re hanging in a relatively protected area – near coralheads or wrecks, or under piers. Bunching and displaying a mass of crazy stripes makes it difficult for predators to focus on a single target. Being near solid structures minimizes the possibility of a predator shooting in like a bullet to strike – the nearby coralhead breaks up the predator’s potential trajectory.
Grunts are nocturnal; once darkness closes in they move out en masse to the grass beds and sandflats to scrounge for worms, mollusks and crustaceans in the sediments. During the day they’re just resting, perhaps dozing, all warily. The common name “grunt” reflects the “grunting” sound their pharyngeal teeth make, amplified by their swim bladders.
Grunts are characterized by tapered bodies and sloping heads. In terms of length, they generally range from eight inches to more than a foot. Their common names reflect their assorted arrangements and colors of stripes – sometimes completely blue stripes of yellow bodies (Bluestriped Grunts, Haemulon sciurius; French Grunts, H. flovolineatum, yellow or brown stripes along silver bodies; Smallmouth Grunts, H. chrysargyreum; Striped Grunts, H. striatum), and, maddenly, variations with very muted stripes.
Close relatives but dramatically different in color design and body shape are Porkfish (Anisotremus virginicus), Black Margates (Anisotremus surinamensis) and White Margates (H. album).
LENGTH: French Grunts: Typically 6 to 10 inches; Smallmouth Grunts 7 to 9 inches; Bluestriped Grunts: 8 to 14 inches; Porkfish: 6 to 10 inches.
Hamlets (Genus Hypoplectrus) are 10 to 17 species (estimates vary) of small fishes found in and only in the Atlantic/Caribbean basin. They’re members of Family Serranidae, the Grouper family, members as large as Mega Groupers. So they’re sort of like groupers, just measuring in at around four to six inches rather than one to three feet.
Hamlets are carnivorous like their larger cousins – their diets are small crabs, fishes and shrimps – and have similar anatomy and swimming techniques. The most colorful is the Indigo Hamlet but the most common is the Barred Hamlet, which, with muted colors, are easy to overlook. Unless you look for them.
LENGTH: Hamlets: Typically 3 to 4.5 inches.
Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus) derive their names from their long snouts, which they use to scrounge in the sediments, like, well, hogs. There’s a colorful cousin, Spanish Hogfish (Bodianus rufus), although I haven’t seen any explanation for the name. I’m guessing it has something to do with their purple and yellow coloration. They’re found exclusively in the Atlantic/Caribbean basin.
• Hogfishes, the L. maximus version, surprisingly are in the Wrasse family, Family Labridae. Surprisingly because they’re much larger and differently shaped than their fellow, tapered-body wrasses. Hogfish have large, flat, oval-shaped bodies, growing as large as three feet in length, 20 pounds in weight. Along with dark bands along their long snouts, they have three long spines trailing off their dorsal fins. A black spot at the end of the dorsal fins differentiates males from females.
Generally their colors vary according to age and sex. Adults are often white, juveniles mottled brownish red. But they can change colors very quickly to blend in with their settings, so you may see adults that are pale white in sandy areas, mottled red in other situations.
Hogfish live primarily on crustaceans and mollusks they scrounge from the sediments, sometimes puffing jets of water to uncover their prey. They’re also known to attack sea urchins. They crush their crunchy victims with strong jaws. They feed both day and night, generally in sandy-bottoms.
• Spanish hogfishes, (Bodianus rufus), by contrast, sport relatively tapered bodies, are closer to 12 inches and generally found in coral-heavy settings. They’re in the Wrasse family also, but they differ from other Wrasses (including Hogfishes) by displaying the same colors and color patterns at all stages of their lives.
Spanish Hogfish adults also prey on small crustaceans, mollusks and sea urchins, but I’ve seen they engage in group hunting parties stalking small fishes. Juvenile Spanish Hogfishes earn their livings as aggressive cleaners of other fishes before transitioning to older fishes’ invertebrates diet.
LENGTH: Adult Hogfish: 1 to 2 feet in length, maximum of 3 feet;Spanish Hogfish 8 to 14 inches, maximum of 2 feet.
HORSE-EYE JACKS, CREVALLE JACKS, BAR JACKS, PALOMETAS
Jacks, a large group of species in Family Carangidae, are mostly open water swimmers in tropical and temperate oceans worldwide – and most are unlikely to be spotted during visits to tropical reefs.
But a few species are common visitors to the reef, including Horse-eye Jacks (Caranx latus), Crevalle Jacks (Caranx hippos), Bar Jacks (Caranx ruber) and Palometas (Trachinotus goodei).
They all tend to be silver/gray in color and sport forked tails that facilitate their constant swimming. When spotted, they’re likely to be in medium to large schools. Bar Jacks race furiously along the reef, Horse-eyes sometimes get into circular patterns, swimming in circles in a relatively fixed area. Palometas, on the other hand, move slowly and are seeming not intimidated by divers – I’ve seen them swim languidly through a collection of divers, practically cuddling with their fins.
Horse-eyes and Crevalles are very similar, and since they’re unlikely to stand still it can be difficult to correctly identify which is which. Horse-eyes, of course, have big round eyes, but eye size is in the eye of the beholder, so that’s not surefire.
LENGTH: Horse-eye Jacks: 1 to 2 feet in length, up to 2.5 feet; Crevalle Jacks: 1 to 2.5 feet, maximum of 3.5 feet; Bar Jacks: 8 to 14 inches; Palometas: 7 to 13 inches.
Jawfish are little guys (mostly less than four inches long) with big heads and jaws and a penchant for living their lives in burrows in sandy seafloors. They’re almost always seen extending their heads and sometimes their bodies above the burrow, feeding on tiny planktonic crustaceans passing in the currents, and retreating back into it in the face of intruders (including divers).
They’re somewhat famous for the males incubating newly hatched eggs in their mouths. There are some 80 species in Family Opistognathidae, found in tropical oceans worldwide. Only a handful are found in he Caribbean, and the version most likely seen, lurking partially extended from its hidey hole, is the Yellotwhead Jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons). Jawfishes construct their burrows bit by bit, using their big mouths as their shovels. A Yellowface’s burrow can be a foot deep and maintaining it is a continuous job.
LENGTH: Yellowhead Jawfish: 2 to 3 inches, up to 4 inches.
Lionfish, sadly, are more famous today for being an aggressive invader of the Atlantic/Caribbean basin than for their exotic looks of red, white and black banded patterns and extensive “manes” of 18 spines. In fact they are perfectly legitimate fishes in their native Indo-Pacific habitat. The difficulty as invaders in the Atlantic/Caribbean is that they’re voracious of all types of juvenile fishes and they have few natural predators. In the Pacific they’re kept in balance, in the Atlantic/Caribbean they destroy the balance and threaten the survival of the fishes that should be there. There are 12 species of lionfish worldwide. Red lionfishes (P. volitans), make up some 93 percent the invaders in western Atlantic waters. They’re members of Family Scorpaenidae, which makes them relatives of scorpionfishes.
LENGTH: Lionfish: 6 to 12 inches. Their array of spines can make them seem larger.
Lizardfish (Family Synodontidae) are bottom-dwelling ambush experts whose M.O. is to lie on the bottom and grab passing prey in the form of small (and sometimes surprisingly large) fishes with lightning-fast strikes. Some 45 species are found worldwide. Above are Reef Lizardfish (Synodus veriegatus), found in the Indo-Pacific. Members of the Caribbean species (Synodus intermedius) have a trick of burying themselves in the sand so only their eyes are visible, earning them the name Sand Divers.
LENGTH: Sand Divers: 4 to 14 inches, to a maximum of 18 inches.
Parrotfish are among the most colorful and obvious inhabitants of the reef. They’re herbivores that consume enormous amounts of microalgae and in the process wear down the (mostly) dead coral it grows on. At one time, Family Scaridae was thought to include about 350 species, based on appearances. Actually, there are about 80. The inflated number arose from the fact that they go through multiple phases with dramatically different appearances – typically, juvenile, initial and terminal, with transitional appearances throughout.
About three times as many parrotfish species inhabit the Indo-Pacific basins as the Atlantic/Caribbean basin. On Caribbean reefs, however, they often appear to be among the most obvious fishes.
The fun fact about parrotfish is that they spend their days scraping algae off dead coral, and in the process converting calcium carbonate into fine, white sand. What they all share are hard, beak-like jaws to do that, and the fact that they move through the water primarily through use of their pectoral fins, not their tail fins.
LENGTH: Queen and Stoplight Parrotfish: 1 to 1.5 feet , up to 2 feet. Princess Parrotfish: 8 to 10 inches, maximum 13 inches. Midnight Parrotfish: 1 to 2 feet but can reach up to 3 feet.
Pufferfish are the guys that can inflate themselves in times of crisis to make it difficult for predators to eat them. Balloonfish, porcupinefish and burrfish are generally counted among the 200 species found in the oceans worldwide, but they’re covered separately here. Otherwise, in the Caribbean, the ones you’re most likely to encounter are little Sharpnose Puffers and perhaps Goldface Tobys – Toby is a term often given them in the Indo/Pacific basin, which sports many more Puffer species.
The family name Tetraodontidae refers to their four large teeth, which are fused into upper and lower plates useful for crushing mollusks and crustaceans. You’re unlikely to see Puffers actually puffed up; it’s a last-ditch defensive measure when endangered. Note to Wiseguys: Trying to provoke them into inflating is not acceptable.
Pufferfish are famous for containing deadly toxins in segments of their tissues, which, of course, makes them highly sought-after delicacies in some cuisines. Having chefs who know what they’re doing is highly desirable.
LENGTH: Sharpnose Pufferfish and Goldface Tobys: 2 to 4 inches; In the Pacific, Blackspotted Puffers: 8 to 13 inches, Map Puffers: Up to 2 feet, Black-Saddled Tobys: 3 to 5 inches: Guineafowl Puffers :6 to 12 inches.
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.