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The Ultimate Guide to Key West Reef Fish

The other day, I was sitting on my favorite Key West barstool, and the guy next to me was waxing poetically about the harlequin basslet he’d just spotted. I pointed out that the queen trigger was by far the most flamboyant, to which he shook his head. “Nah, mate,” he was Australian, for the record. “That’s not it at all; what about the stoplight parrot?” 

Now, if you’re from off-island, you might think we were discussing our favorite flowers, drag performers, or even the new Sherwin-Williams seasonal paint chips. But no, this is Key West. The talk of the town is what sort of cool critters and sea nasties we saw on the reef today. It does not suffice to say, “Lots of pretty fish” or “a scary sharkey-looking thing.” Those sorts of observations will get you ostracized in this town. 

Yep, snorkeling and diving are big parts of day-to-day life in Key West.

Key West Reef Snorkeling

How to ID Reef Fish

Even if you have no interest yourself, you probably know someone who is a birder. Birders are special people; they can tell you the difference between a cedar waxwing, a painted bunting, or a prothonotary warbler. They aren’t just, “Oh, look at the purdy birdy!” type people. 

In the Keys, we do this with fish. Just like there are guides for identifying birds, there are guides for identifying fish. The best one is Reef Fish Identification for Florida, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas by Paul Humann. 

You can also pick up identification cards at local dive shops. They don’t have everything, but they’ll teach you the basics. Plus, these cards are waterproof. You can take them in the water and ask the fish if they’ve seen so and so, at what time, and where they were at the time of the murder. It’s a fun game we like to play in the Keys; we call it Agatha Cousteau. Just don’t bother questioning the shellfish—they always clam up.

This brings us to a very important sidebar: What do you call a person interested in and knowing the difference between fishes? A fisher is a person who catches them, guts them, and eats them—and maybe we do that too, but usually on different days. What about just enjoying them and taking selfies with them? Maybe we should reclaim the word ‘fisher’ to mean just that and leave the anglers to the gutting. Of course, now I’ve just learned that a fisher is a rather mean-looking weasel living in North America. The internet is fun!

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What Fish Is That Fish?

Enough side trips; let’s get to business. Here are the rough groupings of fish as they appear in Paul Humann’s Fish ID book, based on their overall body shape and size. This is the first step to identifying anything, after all. We’ll include a common fish you see on our reefs for each group to give you the idea. 

Disks and Ovals/Colorful Fish

This group includes many of the favorite fish we spot on the reef, the ones that make it look like an aquarium. 

 

The most iconic member of this group? Has to be the Queen Angelfish.

Queen Angelfish in Key West

Silvery Fishy-Fish

These are the fish-looking fishes. Many of them are game or eating fish, like dolphin (or mahi-mahi, or dorado, depending on your part of the world), jacks, wahoo, snook, tarpon, barracuda, and a bunch more. If they’re shiny and fishy-looking, they’re probably in this group.

 

The best example of the most common reef fish? Gonna go with the Atlantic Spadefish. 

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Sloping Head with Tapered Body

 

Mmmm, snapper! There are probably more than a dozen types of snapper, many of which are fun to see on the reef or your dinner plate. 

 

The iconic one you see all the time on the reef? Yellowtail Snapper.

Small Oval Fish

These guys are missed by many first-time reef snorkelers who are distracted by the bigger stuff. But if you hover over a reef and just watch closely, hundreds of small fish are moving around. Many of them are small ovals, which includes the huge family of damselfish. 

 

The one you’re most likely to spot in Key West? Sergeant Major, which are literally everywhere. 

Key West Reef Fish

Heavy Body with Large Lips (AKA Rock Star Fish)

Move over, Rolling Stones; the groupers are here. Groupers are the local family of sea bass. 

 

The best example is the Goliath Grouper (please don’t single him out for his religion; it’s rude). These guys can get up to 8 feet long and nearly 700 pounds, making them the biggest reef fish you might come across. 

Reef Fish

Fish That Swim with their Pectoral Fins (AKA Fish Confused About How to Swim)

Besides shape, you can also categorize fish based on how they swim. When you imagine most fish swimming, they use their tail. But this group likes to swim with its pectoral fins, like a rookie snorkeler who forgot they’re wearing swim fins on their feet. But the fish have better luck. Parrotfish, hogfish, and wrasses are all in this group.

Parrotfish are the most striking of this group, and you see tons of them on the reef on every trip. They’re big and colorful, so they’re a favorite. The Stoplight Parrotfish is my personal favorite.  

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Reddish, Big-Eyed Fish (AKA Hungover Fish)

This is a small group, with only one fish you’ll see often. That’s the Squirrelfish.

Longspine Squirrelfish

Small Elongated Bottom Dwellers

Get your mind out of the gutter. We’re talking about fish here, fish like Gobys, Blennys, and Jawfish. Sure, they’re not the sort of fish you talk about at the bar with your friends. But they deserve a spot on the list, because you’ll always find them living in little burrows under the sand or in the rocks. 

 

Here’s the Yellowhead Jawfish.

Opistognathus_aurifrons

Odd-Shaped Bottom Dwellers

Just stop with that! We’re talking about flounders, toadfish, sea horses, and the like.

 

Here’s the Spotted Scorpionfish, which looks like nothing thanks to its perfect camouflage. But when it opens its fins, you can see the bright red coloring. 

Spotted Scorpionfish

Odd-Shaped Swimmers

Okay, what happens if you see a fish that defies description? Apparently, you make up a group just for them. This is my favorite group of fish; who doesn’t love the ones that don’t fit in? 

The perfect example? Gotta be the Scrawled Filefish; it doesn’t get any odder than that!

Scrawled Filefish in Key West

Eels

Most eels you’ll see here are moray eels, and the most common one is the Green Moray. They can grow to be up to eight feet long and live in holes in the reef. You’ll usually only see their heads sticking out. 

Green Moray Eel

Sharks and Rays

If you see a shark on the reef, count yourself lucky. They’re pretty shy, and you’ll usually only see one in the distance as it swims away. 

 

The most common shark you’ll see on the Key West reef is the nurse shark. They like to lounge in the sand and relax. It’s the only shark you’ll see sitting in one place, as others swim constantly. 

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Rays are easier to see and a little less shy. The spotted eagle ray is my favorite, but there are also lots of Southern Stingrays out on the reef. 

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Hop aboard and spot some of these Reef Fish for yourself!

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There you have it, the foundations of learning how to identify reef fish and make new friends at the best Key West bars. But the only way to really learn how many fishes in the sea there really are is to dive in, and the best way to do that is on a private Key West snorkel charter. Book your trip today and let’s dive in.

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