Making neighbors with colorful fish is one of the best things about snorkeling in Florida! The clear waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico hide underwater wonders where vibrant coral gardens give a home to an abundance of marine life. This Florida reef fish guide with names and images helps you identify the most common species you’ll see around reefs and mangroves, over rocky bottoms and seagrass meadows at Florida’s best snorkeling sites.
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One look at the French grunt makes it obvious why this silver fish with animated yellow striping is also known as the banana grunt and gold-laced grunt. Known to swim in groups consisting of several hundred, sometimes even thousand schooling fish, these striking creatures with compressed bodies can grow to be 12 inches (30 cm) long. They earned the “grunt” name due to the loud noises they make when grinding their teeth.
Grunt fish can be found in water depths reaching nearly 200ft/60m. As adults, their favorite spots are coral reefs and ledges. It’s common to see colorful juveniles nested into seagrass beds in protected lagoons and bays. The reason why French grunts prefer sheltered spaces is that they are often targeted by predatory fish. While primarily considered to be a Caribbean fish, the French grunt’s range covers the coasts of Bermuda, South Carolina, and also Brazil.
Looking like a colorful “pancake” in the water due to its compassed shape and small mouth, the deep-blue to purple-blue colored fish is a treat to spot in the water! A blue tang is most likely to be found nestled in the predator-proof crevices of coral reefs no deeper than 130 feet (40 meters).
Although they are schooling Florida fish, the blue tangs usually stay in small groups of up to 12 while foraging for algae and other reef delights. In fact, they have different social modes: territorial (actively chasing or defending themselves), schooling (fast swimming and eating at intermediate rates), and wandering (moving individually to feeding areas).
This common Florida reef fish that populates the waters of South Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean has a big range; the blue tang has been spotted in waters stretching from New York to the Gulf of Mexico.
Although it looks cute and passive most of the time, blue tangs are actually capable of activating razor-like, venom-releasing spines from their tail when they sense danger or in territorial mode so be careful with them.
Reaching around 9 inches (22 cm) in length, the sergeant major is an oval-shaped reef fish that’s easily identified due to the five black bars stamped to the sides of its body. Interestingly, the sergeant major will go from a silver color to a black-as-night hue based on whether it’s exploring sandy areas or hiding out in underwater cracks and caves.
When traveling or feeding in schools, this fish likes to stay atop the reefs at depths from 3 feet to 50 feet (1-15 m). While sergeant majors are common sights in the warm waters of South Florida, their habitat actually ranges from Rhode Island all the way down to Uruguay! They are even known to hug the African coast and the Indian Ocean.
A fierce hunter known to haunt Florida’s snorkeling sites; the barracuda is capable of reaching speeds of 35 miles per hour (56 km/h) while in pursuit of prey. While a barracuda isn’t interested in humans, it could mistake any shiny object for a fish and can attack, therefore it is better to avoid wearing glittering objects when snorkeling or diving in waters that barracudas frequent.
Known to grow over 5 feet (1.5m) long, the 100-pound (45 kg) barracuda rivals the size of a human. However, individuals spotted around shallow reefs and seagrass beds are smaller, usually around 20–35 inches/50-88 cm in length. These shiny, savage creatures that glisten with silver skin feed on smaller fishes, shrimps, and squids.
The doctorfish is easily identified by its pancake-like body with high-set eyes and small mouth. While coloring can range from blue to brown, the 10 to 12 thin blue bars on each side of the doctorfish’s body make this fish unmistakable for snorkelers!
The range of doctorfish tangs covers the waters spanning Massachusetts to Brazil. While they prefer rocky substrates and reefs no deeper than 130ft/40m, they are also commonly spotted nibbling on algae on sandy or rocky bottoms. Note that these little algae eaters can actually do damage to humans using the sharp spines hidden in their tails when feeling threatened.
These little angels love to swim in pairs in reefs at depths reaching 7 feet to nearly 100 feet (2-30 meters). They are identified by their discus-shaped bodies and thin builds. While most people instantly think of a silver-grey color when they picture gray angelfish, this species actually exhibits distinctive yellow bands on its black body as a juvenile.
While angelfish can grow to 24 inches (60 cm) in adulthood, most max out at 9 inches (22 cm). Known primarily as natives of reefs in the western Atlantic Ocean, gray angelfish actually spread out from New England all the way to Brazil! As this species is curious about humans, they are popular with underwater photographers.
The five to six vertical black stripes running down the silver body of the sheepshead give this species its nickname of “convict fish.” Sheepshead reef fish are known to grow close to 30 inches/76cm.
Commonly found in rock pilings, tidal creeks, and jetties, the sheepshead has an incredible range that covers Nova Scotia to South America. However, the biggest populations are actually found off the waters of southwest Florida.
You’re highly likely to see these schooling beauties congregating on coral reefs off South Florida and at snorkeling spots in the Florida Keys. While the snapper is one of the most common Florida reef fish, its span actually ranges from Massachusetts to southeastern Brazil.
Capable of growing to 30 inches/76 cm, yellow snappers are identified by a lateral yellow stripe running from the eye to the forked tail. Snappers will swim in depths of 230ft/70m. They are prized as game and food fish.
One of the deepest-diving Florida reef fish, the scrawled filefish can be found in depths of nearly 400 feet/120 meters, but it is commonly spotted around shallow reefs and lagoons too. As a slow-moving fish, the filefish is a favorite of divers looking for a long, slow glance.
This fish is defined by a uniquely shaped oval body with a distinctive upturned mouth. While its gray coloring would be unremarkable on its own, the scrawled filefish is speckled with blue lines and dark dots.
Don’t look for a curly tail or snout here! The porkfish gets its name because it makes loud, pig-like grunting sounds. Capable of growing to 15 inches (38 cm) in length, the porkfish has a flat yellow body that’s broken up by silvery stripes. Porkfish also have two black bars streaking down over their eyes.
This is a beloved reef fish of Florida because of its friendly curiosity toward humans. Inhabiting the area from South Florida to Brazil, the porkfish has a much smaller range compared to many other popular Florida reef fish species.
Parrotfish are true tropical fish that lives in all tropical and subtropical waters of the world’s ocean; they are abundant at the world’s most popular snorkeling destinations such as Hawaii or the Maldives.
This particular parrotfish species, the stoplight lives in south Florida and the Florida Keys, in the Caribbean but also in the south up to Brazil mostly in areas that are rich in algae.
Parrotfish are protogynous hermaphrodites meaning that they turn from female to male during their lifespan that has three phases; juvenile, initial, and terminal. The name stoplight refers to the yellow spot that can be seen on individuals that are in the terminal phase. Juveniles and individuals in the initial phase are brown-red colored.
The unusual honeycomb fish is considered an elusive Florida fish because it’s spotted much less frequently than other species. Ranging in color from gray to blue, this species typically grows to 9 inches (22 cm) long and is easy to identify from its box-like body and hexagonal scales.
Found in Atlantic waters stretching from New Jersey to Brazil, the honeycomb cowfish enjoys reef habitats at depths of 260 feet (80 meters). In the Caribbean region, it is prized for its delicious taste.
One of the largest reef fish of Florida, the Goliath grouper can reach up to 8ft/2.4m and 800 pounds/360 kg! In fact, it is one of the largest bony fish species. Their large bodies can amazingly blend into muddy pits and rocky coral with ease and are often found around artificial structures like wrecks and underwater platforms.
This is a solitary fish that is commonly seen in the waters spanning from Florida to Brazil. In the eastern Atlantic, the Goliath makes its way to the West African coast and even to the Mediterranean Sea.
Not everyone is happy seeing sharks while snorkeling, but you should not be worried if you encounter a nurse shark. Although this bottom-dwelling fish is a common sight around the area’s reefs, they pose very little threat to humans.
Nurse sharks are found in warm, shallow waters near patch reefs. During the day, they are usually resting on the seafloor over sandy areas or under rocks. They can be easily distinguished from other shark species by their flat, wide head, long barbels, and cat-like eyes. This is why nurse sharks are often referred to as cat sharks too!
Green moray eel
While not the prettiest creature, the 6-8 feet (1.8-2.4 m) length green moray eel is a fierce predator that stalks prey in the crevices of the sea. Their signature move is to tie their bodies around fish that are too big to gobble up in a single bite! An interesting fact is that originally their color is dark brownish and the yellowish-green shade comes from a protective mucus layer.
Moray eels can bite humans when provoked and therefore are feared by many, but you should not panic when spotting a green moray; observe it from at least 6-10 ft (2-3 m) and do not block its way if you find it swimming over the reef!
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