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Aquarium Fish at Hanauma Bay

Snorkel at Hanauma Bay on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and then create a Hanauma Bay biotope at home.

By Cassandra Radcliff |

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Hanauma Bay
View of Hanauma Bay, where visitors can snorkel with wild reef fish species often found in aquariums. Photo credit: Cassandra Radcliff

Many aquarists would love to be able to swim with their fish and experience them in their natural wild habitats. Our aquarium fish often come from faraway and exotic destinations, but there are a few reefs Americans can travel to without having to apply for a passport (and without even learning how to scuba). Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of those reefs, and it is just a few minutes’ drive from Waikiki Beach on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Here snorkelers can view some of their favorite aquarium fish on a coral reef in warm, waist-deep waters.

The bay is a remnant of the ancient Ko’olau volcano, which has been dormant for 1.7 million years. It rose out from the sea floor, and waves eroded the southeast wall of the Hanauma crater. Water filled the crater, creating a bay with calm waves and warm water – a perfect location for a coral reef. The Hawaiian state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a (the reef triggerfish, Rhinecanthus rectangulus) can be spotted here, along with its cousin, the Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus). These and other aquarium fish coming from this area do best in an aquarium with a pH of 8.1 to 8.4, specific gravity of 1.019 to 1.025 and a water temperature from the mid-70s to low 80s.

Snorkeling Tips at Hanauma Bay

  • Allow for at least 4 hours of swim time with the fish
  • Reapply sunscreen at least once (don’t forget the backs of your legs!)
  • Invest in a good underwater digital camera case. Disposable cameras don’t do these beautiful fish justice!
  • Optical snorkels are available (for those of us with glasses), as well as other snorkeling gear, including life vests
  • If you’re not a great swimmer, use a life vest and stay close to your snorkeling partner. Waves here are gentle, but they can carry you away. Lifeguards are on duty.
  • Arrive early. The bay fills up quickly with visitors, and snorkeling gear may all be rented by the time you arrive. There is also a limit to how many people can visit in a day, so you may be turned away if the bay is already filled to capacity.


Sample Hanauma Bay Biotopes

If you don’t already have a Hawaiian biotope aquarium in your home, you may find one irresistible after visiting Hanauma Bay. Remember that some of these can fish suffer shipping stress and may not survive if shipped to the continental United States (some of the specimens you purchase may not even be from Hawaii and will be shipped from even farther distances). If you live in the Hawaiian Islands, you will have better luck with more delicate species collected in the area, as they will not have to endure the stress of being shipped far away.

What follows are three sample biotopes reflecting the marine life in Hanauma Bay. Scott W. Michael, writer and photographer for Aquarium Fish International magazine and FishChannel.com has graciously helped me put together these three sample biotopes:

Biotope Setup 1: Beginner FOWLR with Tangs
This beginner fish-only-with-live-rock aquarium (FOWLR) with tangs is a good starter setup for saltwater aquarists who want to keep saltwater fish but are not yet ready for a full-blown reef aquarium.
Size: 180 gallons
Corals: None. Include faux corals and/or live rock.
Motile invertebrates: None. Some of the fish included in this setup may eat them.
Fish: Three convict tangs (Acanthurus triostegus), one yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), Kole tang (Ctenochaetus triostegus), Christmas wrasse (Halichoeres ornatissimus), saddle wrasse (Thalassoma duperrey), soldierfish (Myripristis sp.), Potter’s angelfish (Centropyge potteri), three milletseed butterflyfish (Chaetodon miliaris), yellow longnose butterflyfish (Forcipiger flavissimus), Hawaiian fantail filefish (Pervagor spilosoma)

Biotope Setup 2: Picasso triggerfish Aquarium (FOWLR)
The Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus), also called the lagoon triggerfish, is an amazing fish that will cause a ruckus in your aquarium. They are incredibly interesting species closely related to Hawaii’s state fish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus). They will rearrange the aquarium to their liking and eat many potential tankmates (so be careful when selecting other species for this aquarium!).
Size: 75 gallons for one Picasso trigger, 240 gallons for an aggressive community aquarium including this fish.
Corals: None. The Picasso triggerfish is not reef-safe. Instead include rockwork and faux corals that will allow this fish some shelter at night and when it wants to hide.
Motile invertebrates: None, except for large, stinging anemones that the Picasso triggerfish will not eat.
Fish: The Picasso triggerfish can be housed with other larger and aggressive species, such as eels, pufferfish and larger surgeonfishes, but should not be kept with members of its own kind or smaller species that may be eaten. The triggerfish is best introduced after these other species.

Biotope Setup 3: Reef Aqaurium
This aquarium is a full-blown reef aquarium that will hold fish, corals and other invertebrates that can be found around Hawaii. You can be strict in the species you stock, or you can bend the rules and choose corals from other areas.
Size: 150 gallons
Corals: Fungia, Pocillopora, Porites corals. See the Inverts section of “Aquarium Species Found at Hanauma Bay” below for specific species endemic to Hawaii. You can also bend the rules a little, and keep easier or more readily available corals in the same genera.
Motile invertebrates: Nerite snails, Linckia sea stars
Fish: Yellow tangs (Zebrasoma flaviscens), blennies, Naso or orangespine tang (Naso lituratus), or any other compatible fish from the “Aquarium Species Found at Hanauma Bay” section below.

If you do not have the means to provide for a Hawaiian biotope, just enjoy a trip to Hanauma Bay and appreciate the native fish in their natural habitat. Hanauma Bay is a beautiful place where inexperienced snorkelers can see many fish during one visit. Waters are comfortable and gentle, and even those uncomfortable with swimming can enjoy some of their favorite fish up close.


Aquarium Species Found at Hanauma Bay

Convict Tangs
Convict tangs, which swim together in large schools, are probably the most plentiful species of fish in Hanauma Bay. Photo credit: Cassandra Radcliff
Some popular aquarium species* that you can see at the bay include:

FISH
Achilles tangs (Acanthurus achilles)
Arc eye hawkfish (Paracirrhitus arcuatus)
Arothron or spotted pufferfish (Arothron meleagris)
Bird wrasse (Gomphosus varius)
Blackside or freckled hawkfish (Paracirrhites forsteri)
Boxfish (Ostracion meleagris)
Convict tangs (probably the most plentiful fish on this reef, Acanthurus triostegus)
Hawaiian black triggerfish (Melichthys niger)
Lavender tang (Acanthurus nigrofuscus)
Milletseed or lemon butterflyfish (Chaetodon miliaris)
Moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus)
Naso or orangespine tang (Naso lituratus)
Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus)
Porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix)
Raccoon butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula)
Reef triggerfish or humu rectangle (Rhinecanthus rectangulus)
Sailfin tang (Zebrasoma veliferum)
Snake spotted eel (Myrichthys maculosus)
Snowflake eel (Echidna nebulosa)
Teardrop butterflyfish (Chaetodon unimaculatus)
Threadfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga)
Yellowfin tang (Acanthurus xanthopterus)
Yellow longnose butterflyfish (Forcipiger flavissimus)
Yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens)
Whitemouth moray eel (Gymnothorax meleagris)

INVERTS
Banded coral shrimp (Stenopus hispidus)
Cauliflower/rose coral (Pocillopora, especially P. meandrina)
Feather duster worms (Sabellastarte species)
Finger coral (Porites spp., especially P. compressa)
Linckia 
sea stars (such as crown of thorns sea star, Linckia planci; brittle sea star, Ophiocoma sp.)
Lobe coral (Porites spp., especially P. lobata)
Mushroom coral (Fungia spp., especially F. scutaria)
Nerite snails (Nerita picea)
Nudibranchs (various species)
Rice coral (Montipora spp., especially M. capitata)
Saron shrimp (Saron marmoratus)
Urchins (Various species, including the collector urchin, Tripneustes gratilla; and pencil or red slate urchin, Heterocentrotus mammilatus)

*Although some species, such as the Moorish idol, can be found in the aquarium trade, it does not mean that these fish are always appropriate for aquariums. Moorish idols in particular are delicate in aquariums and should only be kept by responsible, experienced aquarists who can provide for them. Always thoroughly research your prospective aquarium inhabitants before purchase.

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