Some of the Mexican Caribbean’s Colorful Reef Inhabitants

Are you ready to don your snorkel mask and dive in to a world of beauty? Stretching from Contoy to Belize, the Mesoamerican Reef is the second longest coral reef chain in the world and it is home to a host of colorful fish of all shapes and sizes. Here are some of the most common species to look out for wherever you snorkel or dive in the Mexican Caribbean, whether that’s Cancun or Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Akumal or Xel-Há. (all Photos courtesy of Marco Mier/Dive Balam)

Sergeant Major

Abudefduf saxatilis

A member of the damselfish family, this is one of the most common fish you’ll see in the Mexican Caribbean. Large schools of them gather in the vicinity of coral reefs and in inlets and they seem to be unfazed by the presence of snorkelers!
It owes its name “sergeant major” to five black stripes that resemble military insignia, and to the fact that the male is very territorial when guarding its nest. It feeds on algae and shrimp larvae.

Queen Angelfish

Holacanthus ciliaris
This regal reef beauty is commonly seen in pairs and some biologists speculate that this behavior may suggest that they form long-standing relationships. The blue angelfish also inhabits local reefs and you can tell them apart by looking for the dark ringed spot resembling a crown on the head and the completely yellow tail.

Blue Tang

Acanthurus coeruleus

The Blue Tang is a striking dark blue fish that starts life as a bright yellow juvenile and then turns pale blue and pale yellow before reaching maturity. Also known as the surgeonfish due to the scalpel-shaped spines on either side of its tail, it feeds on algae and may be seen in pairs or schools near reefs and in caletas or inlets such as Xel-Ha, Yalku and Chankanaab lagoon on Cozumel.

Spotfin butterflyfish

Chaetodon ocellatus

Usually seen in pairs or small groups, this fish feeds on tubeworms, sea fans and anemones, which it scrapes off the reef. It changes color at night and dark bands appear on its body.


Scaridae family

Several members of the parrotfish family can be seen near reefs in the Cancun-Isla Mujeres area, the Riviera Maya and Cozumel. Look out for Rainbow Parrotfish, Midnight Parrotfish and Striped Parrotfish.
How did parrotfish get their name? Their powerful jaws resemble a parrot’s bill and they use them to bite off fragments of coral, rock, algae and grind up mollusk shells. You may even hear them under water. After digestion, they excrete sand and this helps create the white sand of the Mexican Caribbean.


Anisotremus virginicus

Recognizable for its yellow body and black stripes, porkfish congregate in schools near the reef crest. They make a grunting noise by rubbing their teeth together. Juvenile fish are “cleaners,” picking parasites from the scales of other species.

Cocoa damselfish

Stegastes variabilis

This dainty chocolate brown beauty feeds on algae and is fiercely territorial despite its diminutive size. It will stand guard over the nest where it lays its eggs and chase larger fish away. Juveniles are yellow and blue colored, like the one in the picture.

Porcupine fish

Diodon holocanthus

This fish hides on the reef during the day and hunts for crabs, sea urchins and snails at night. Covered in spines, it swells like a balloon by taking in water and changes color when it feels threatened, hence its other names: balloon or puffer fish.

Spotted drum

Equetus punctatus

This small, solitary black and white fish can often be seen under ledges on the reef and near the mouths of caves. It feeds on crabs and shrimps at night and is recognizable due to its upright fin.


Holocentrus adscensionis

This salmon pink species hides in crevices or under ledges on the reef during the day and ventures out at night to hunt for crabs and crustaceans.

And that’s just for starters! You’ll also come across trumpetfish, grunts, trunkfish and scrawled cowfish among others and larger fish like jacks, snappers, hogfish, grouper and barracuda. As you swim past the reef you’ll notice a variety of even smaller creatures sheltering among the corals, algae and sponges. And be sure to keep a look out for sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, octopus and lobster.

Royal Resorts guests who go snorkeling in the bay in front of The Royal Haciendas are likely to have seen some of the fish we are showcasing in this post. If you have a favorite or a snorkeling or dive adventure you would like to share, do drop us a line we would love to hear from you.

If you liked this article you might like to read Great Snorkeling Spots in the Mexican Caribbean

Protecting Marine Life

  • Please respect these rules when snorkeling and help us protect coral reefs and the creatures that inhabit them.
  • Chemicals and oils in sun products contaminate the water and are harmful to corals and other marine life. As an alternative to sun creams, wearing a t-shirt while snorkeling helps protect you from the sun’s rays.
  • Keep your distance from coral reefs when snorkeling and diving. Corals are very slow growing and the slightest touch can cause damage that it will take the reef hundreds of years to recover from.
  • Avoid stirring up sand with your fins, it clogs coral polyps blocking life-giving sunlight.
  • Do not touch or remove shells or any other marine creature living or dead from rock pools or coral reefs.
  • Look but don’t touch. Do not get too close to sea turtles, fish or other marine life.