Hawaii’s unique location and environment allow a multitude of endemic species to thrive in the island habitat.
With branching coral reefs, iridescent fish, and strange looking invertebrates, it’s no wonder that the island chain is widely known as home to some of the best diving and snorkeling spots in the world.
There are numerous marine animals of all shapes and sizes that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. Grab your snorkeling gear and an underwater camera because you won’t want to miss these eight sea creatures that can only be seen in Hawaiian waters.
Though many types of heʻe (octopuses) call Hawaii home, only two are endemic to the islands: the more common Hawaiian octopus, and the Short-Arm Sand Octopus. They are extremely intelligent masters of camouflage, matching their surroundings in an instant. So unless you have a well-trained eye to spot them—like many local fishermen—you will be very lucky if you see one out on the reef.
Go snorkeling anywhere in the state and you’re bound to see at least one species of butterflyfish. The pebbled variety can easily be spotted in lagoons or shallow inshore reef habitats.
Hawaii’s only native mammal (other than Hawaiians themselves), are Hawaiian monk seal. However, these seals are an endangered species with an increasing population. They are spotted in the main Hawaiian Islands where they can typically be found resting on the beach. The Hawaiians named these 450 pound seals ‘ilio holo i ka uaua, which translates to ‘the dog that runs in rough water.’
Believe it or not, coral is a living organism made up of colonies of tiny coral polyps. Hawaii’s coral reefs and those around the world are an essential part of the marine ecosystem housing thousands of animals. Ancient Hawaiians recognized the importance of the coral reef as well, naming it as the first organism to exist in the universe according to the well-known creation chant, the Kumulipo.
These small reef fish are sometimes called Hawaiian Domino fish for their obvious monochromatic resemblance to the game. Schools of the Hawaiian dascyllus are often seen swimming between coral heads and peaking out of crevices in the reef.
Even fish like to be clean. These brightly colored fish dart about cleaning other fish with their specialized mouth and really do a thorough job, sometimes even entering the mouth and gills of larger creatures who hold absolutely still during the treatment. The Hawaiian cleaner wrasses are even known to set up a cleaning station in a specific location which will be visited by fish waiting to be cleaned.
Don’t put that beautiful shell in your pocket—it may be home to a hermit crab. There are many varieties of hermit crabs that can easily be seen scuttling across Hawaii’s many tide pools. Since they often switch between shells, the animals are distinguished by their colorful eyes and legs. The endemic Painted Hermit Crab has black and orange banded legs, turquoise eyes, and brown claws with white speckles.
This specific lobster species called Ula in Hawaiian is generally hiding under ledges or in the crevices of the coral reef and can be spotted by their antennae. Sadly, these rainbow colored marine invertebrates are a local delicacy and heavily impacted by overfishing even though a strict fishing season and regulations are place.