Key West is home to the third largest barrier reef in the world and the largest in North America. Known as the Florida Straits, this reef extends south from Miami and west past Key West for 170 miles. In just under an hour, travelers can reach Key West’s coral reef by boat located seven miles offshore. Here, you can snorkel amidst its majesty and discover the brilliant marine life in its natural habitat or you can learn all about it at the Key West Aquarium. You’ll see coral formations like purple sea fans, elkhorn coral, staghorn coral and brain coral, as well as crustaceans and mollusks like spiny lobsters, crabs and conchs. Of course, the coral reef is teeming with colorful subtropical fish. Read on to learn more about the most common fish in the Florida Keys.
Perhaps the most abundant fish in the Florida Keys, yellowtail snappers travel in large schools and are often the first fish to greet snorkelers at the reef. They’re recognizable for their silvery bodies and bright yellow stripe down their back and tail. These slender fish with a small forked tail are typically no more than about a foot long. Because of their abundance, they’re also one of the most popular fish on restaurant menus in Key West.
The two most common varieties of damselfish in Key West are blue tang and sergeant major. These small fish have larger diamond-shaped bodies with small tails and they travel in large schools. Blue tang are a beautiful, saturated deep blue-black color that seems to change as they move. Sergeant majors have yellow, black and silver stripes. Juveniles are so tiny, they’re sometimes called silver dollars.
Parrotfish are some of the most majestic fish in the sea. They come in three common varieties in the Florida Keys: Rainbow, midnight blue and spotlight. Rainbow parrotfish are found in shades of pink, purple, turquoise and yellow, midnight blue are blue-black and spotlight are orange, yellow, red and white. Mature parrotfish can be one to four feet long with large scales and a strong, beak-like mouth. You’ll often spot them feeding on the coral, which is an important part of the ecosystem, redistributing coral sands and keeping the reef healthy from algae. It’s common to spot them alone or in small pods of three or four other parrotfish.
One of the most sought after fish for both spearfishermen and restaurant diners, grouper are big, meaty fish that come in a wide variety. These pelagic fish are also spotted in shallower waters at the reef. Black groupers are commonly found in the Florida Keys and they’re characterized by a splotchy brown, grey and black coloring with a wide jaw. The goliath grouper is a critically endangered grouper species often found in deep Atlantic waters that can weigh as much as 700 pounds.
Angelfish come in a wide variety of colors and sizes in the Florida Keys. They’re sometimes harder to spot at the reef because they tend to travel alone. Shaped in a triangle with a small tail, they’re typically a foot long or smaller. You’ll see them in colors ranging from bright red and orange to electric yellow and blue.
Hogfish snapper is another prized fish amongst spearfishermen and restaurant diners, specifically because they’re so unique to the region and so delicious to eat. Named for their pig-like snout, the hogfish is a spade-shaped fish that grows to about a foot long.
Mahi-mahi are pelagic fish typically found in the Gulf Stream by deep sea fishermen and divers. They have a blunt forehead and long body in shades of electric green and yellow. They’re also a popular fish on menus in the Florida Keys.
One of the more menacing-looking fish in the Florida Keys, the barracuda is a large, predatory fish with sharp fangs that can move quickly when it overtakes its prey. Their slender, silvery bodies are snakelike and they typically feed on smaller fish, like yellowtail snapper. While they look scary and you certainly don’t want to provoke one, they’re typically safe to snorkel with from a distance.
Tuna are also pelagic and a prized catch of commercial and deep sea fishermen. Blackfin tuna is the most common variety in the Florida Keys. With oval-shaped bodies, they weigh up to about 50 pounds and are a treat on any restaurant menu.
Tarpon are a popular game fish in the Florida Keys and anglers come from far and wide to reel in these strong, silver-glinting fish when they’re in season. They can grow up to four to eight feet long and it’s possible to spot them everywhere from the marinas to the reef.