There are 1773 documented species that occupy tropical reefs worldwide, and South Florida has the most diverse population of fish in America, with 531 species to admire. To put this into perspective, Hawaii only has 332 different reef inhabitants. From angelfish and parrotfish to sea turtles and dolphins, here are a few exciting species to look for while you're snorkeling on a reef in Palm Beach.
Queen Angelfish are quite possibly some of the most beautiful and iconic fish in the sea, and acquired their name from their “crowns”, a round black/blue spot on top of their heads. Angelfish are omnivores, eating mostly sponges and algae, and they usually live alone or in pairs, so it has been theorized that they are monogamous and form long-term bonds with their partner.
Green Moray Eels
There are about 160 eel species, but green moray eels are actually some of the largest. The largest green moray eel ever measured was over eight feet long and weighed 65 pounds! You’ll usually find a green moray eel tucked up into coral with its head popping out and its mouth opening and closing. While this type of behavior is usually a warning from other species, moral eels are actually pumping water through their gills to take in oxygen to survive. These slime-covered creatures also have two sets of jaws! Two sets of jaws help moray eels grasp food with the first set of jaws, then bite into their prey with a smaller set of jaws which pulls it down their throat.
There are lots of different colors of parrotfish, but the most common in Florida is the queen parrotfish. They are named for their powerful beaks formed from the fusing of teeth into biting plates, which they use to eat dead coral and algae- basically cleaning the reef! This is so important, because without their help, reefs would be smothered by growth and die. To top it off, after eating all of that waste, parrotfish expel fine white sand producing up to 700 pounds a year! They’re basically pretty little waste management factories!
While lionfish are beautiful, they are actually an invasive species to Florida. Unfortunately, they do not have natural enemies in Atlantic waters, and easily eliminate native specoes when competing for space and food. They have 13-18 venomous spines on the backside of their body used for self-defense, and while they don’t attack humans, touching them should be avoided as a lionfish sting can produce nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and breathing difficulties. FWC encourages experienced spearfisherman to hunt and eliminate lionfish in Florida as much as possible.
Seahorses are one of the most distinct and mystical marine species in the world. They thrive in a strong armor-like suit of bony plates, and stick with one mating partner for life engaging in almost ritualistic dances together for hours on end. One of their most notable traits is that the males carry the burden of pregnancy and childbirth, not the females. Seahorses are not able to travel long distances, but they use their tails to “hitchhike” and wrap around floating vegetation.
Spotted Eagle Rays
The way spotted eagle rays glide through the water is quite majestic to see in the wild, and while they are a carnivorous predator, they are also shy, gentle creatures that pose no significant threat to humans. Rays are believed to live for as long as 25 years, and their wingspan can grow as large as 10 feet wide!
Everyone’s favorite marine reptile is one of the most exciting species to see up close. Their gentle nature and shy character makes them hard to get close to, but if you’re patient they may let you linger for a few minutes. Sea turtles will travel up to 4,000 miles and still come back to nest on the same beach every year. All sea turtle species are endangered and should be left alone. For more information about how you can help conserve sea turtles, visit Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s website. >
Caribbean Spiny Lobster
In Florida, you’ll find lobster tucked up under rocks and in holes around coral reefs and structures. Spiny lobsters are different from their Maine counterparts in that they don’t have claws. They have long antennae over their eyes that they wave to scare off predators and smaller antennae-like structures called antennules that sense movement and detect chemicals in the water. The recreational fishery for the spiny lobster begins in July with a two-day sport season. This season is the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July each year. Regular spiny lobster season is August 6 through March 31. For information on spiny lobster regulations during the sport season and the regular season, visit the FWC's Division of Marine Fisheries Management Lobster page. >
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the smartest and most intriguing marine mammal native to Florida. Having an encounter with dolphins in the wild is rare, but it’s possible! These social and curious beings will probably say hi from afar, but if you’re lucky you’ll hear their happy sounding echolocation as they send out signals much like sonar.
Porkfish are in the grunt family, and are also referred to as “sweetlips” because of their large rubbery lips. They make a “grunting” noise by rubbing their flat teeth plates together, which is amplified by their air bladders.