The reef triggerfish is one of the most iconic Hawaiian fish, particularly thanks to its name, which is one of the longest words in the Hawaiian language. When literally translated, humuhumunukunukuapua’a means “triggerfish with a snout like a pig.” It’s true, the snout is long and sometimes a bit on the pink side in hue. Like most other triggerfish, the reef triggerfish has a football-shaped body, with its head comprising more than a third of its total size.
Another way you can easily recognize this particular fish is by its colors and markings. Its snout is the palest part of its body, which is divided from the gold tones of the top of its back by a large band of black that dominates its underside. Then of course there’s the bold yellow outline near its tail that looks like an arrow pointing toward its eye. It really is quite the remarkable fish, in both name and appearance.
The reef triggerfish is a common sighting on our Molokini snorkel tours. Of course we never know which species are going to show up on any given tour, but that’s half the fun! Molokini is a small crater island off Maui’s southern coast, and its beautiful coral reefs attract many species, including the reef triggerfish, which typically feeds on invertebrates hiding in the sand.
This species features close-set teeth that help it capture its small prey, and you will often see it spitting out sand as it sifts through the substrate. It can also blow jets of water from its mouth to clear the sand away and make its hunting strategy a bit easier. Triggerfish are named for their spines, which they use to lock themselves in crevices so that predators have a hard time removing them. The reef triggerfish will sometimes make grunting noises when fleeing predators, which may have contributed to early Hawaiians finding them to be pig-like. Marine scientists believe these noises act as a warning call for other triggerfish.
If you do spot the reef triggerfish, you will usually find it alone, as they prefer the solitary life, and will often act aggressively toward one another if they cross paths. You may also notice that this fish can rapidly alter their coloration, like their other triggerfish relatives and many other marine species. They are known to “turn their colors off” and assume a drab appearance while asleep or submissive, helping them to fade into the background to avoid confrontation. When a triggerfish is healthy and confident, you will see those vibrant colors.
We hope you’ll get to see at least one of these magnificent fish on our Molokini snorkel tour. If you need our assistance identifying the fish that you see, don’t hesitate to ask, and our knowledgeable naturalists will help. Mahalo!