Saltwater fish live in a hidden world most people never see, so you might be surprised to discover their colorful beauty. Used for camouflage and to warn away predators, a fish’s color is far more than decoration.
We’ve rounded up the most colorful saltwater fish found in oceans around the world, including a species that changes colors as it ages and another that inspired a hit animated movie. Take a look!
Top 10 Most Colorful Saltwater Fish
Get ready to dive into the colorful depths of the ocean with some of our favorite, vibrant fish species.
Although only three inches long, the mandarinfish is instantly eye-catching thanks to its bright blue, green, and orange coloring. With long, flowing fins, they’re vibrant and downright festive in appearance.
The mandarinfish is native to the Waster Pacific. You’ll find them in small groups near the Philippine Islands, Pohnpei, and near the Great Barrier Reef. Their bold colors match the look of the coral reef where they prefer to live, hiding during the day and emerging at night to feed and mate.
They’re one of the few species of fish that don’t have scales. Instead, they produce an oily, toxic mucous that repels any predator that tries to take a bite. Additionally, it helps protect the fish from parasites.
While beautiful, they’re difficult to keep in captivity, requiring the resources of a large-scale aquarium. However, they thrive in nature, where you can find them in shallow lagoons, inshore reefs, and around coral.
2. Flame Angelfish
These fiery orange fish are impossible to miss! They have long, flat bodies marked by tell-tale dark, vertical bands. Most flame angelfish live about five to seven years.
The species thrives both in the wild and in captivity. They’re found throughout reefs in Oceania, including near the Marshall, Line, and Cook Islands. To a lesser extent, they’re also found in the waters near Hawaii.
They’re also relatively easy to keep in an aquarium, where they eat brine shrimp, seaweed, and pellets. While they tend to act shy and reserved at first when introduced, in a week or so, most fish start to feel at home and will likely swim around confidently.
Never place more than one male in an aquarium. Instead, keep either a single male or a male and a female. Flame angelfish can breed successfully in captivity. They typically spawn in the evening, releasing pelagic gametes into the water.
Popularized by the Pixar hit Finding Nemo, real clownfish are quite animated in their own right. They’re characterized by bright orange coloring with three wide, white bands. They grow to a length of three to four inches.
You can find clownfish throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans. They’re fans of warm water, so you’ll find them in shallow bodies of water such as reefs and lagoons.
Interestingly, they’re often found near anemones. While anemones secrete a toxin from their tentacles, clownfish develop an immunity due to a protective layer of mucus. The two form a symbiotic relationship, with the anemone providing protection while the clownfish brings it food and helps keep it free from parasites.
They’re social fish who live in small social groups. Each group is led by a dominant female, with a dominant male acting as a secondary leader. If the leader dies, the dominant male will switch sexes and become the new leader.
4. Palette Surgeonfish
As another colorful fish featured in Finding Nemo, you’ll likely recognize the palette surgeonfish as Dory, Nemo’s forgetful friend. Also known as the Pacific blue tang, the surgeonfish is characterized by its oval shape and bright blue coloring.
A removable spine develops on each of its sides that act as a defense mechanism against predators. Sharp and rigid like a scalpel, it’s the inspiration for the fish’s unique name.
They live near reefs, which they help preserve by eating weeds and other vegetative growth that can overwhelm the corals. Scientists refer to these fish as “lawnmowers” because they help preserve these delicate ecosystems.
5. The Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish
Incredibly popular among aquarium enthusiasts, the yellow longnose butterfly is true to its name, with a long, forceps-shaped snout. They have an oval-shaped body with bright yellow and white coloring and a black spot by their tail fin.
They’re found throughout the tropical water in the Indo-Pacific area and the Southwest Gulf of California. They prefer to spend time around rocks and reefs, where they mainly feed on small crustaceans and hydroids.
These brightly-colored fish are monogamous and generally travel in pairs, except for young fish, which form small groups.
6. Banggai Cardinalfish
Native to the Banggai Islands of Indonesia, the Banggai cardinalfish has an elegant look with colorful, speckled fins, an off-white body, and three black stripes. They’re slow-moving, graceful fish that swim in schools.
They grow to about three inches and live for up to five years. They take to captivity well and will even reproduce. Like many fish, the females lay the eggs while the males raise the young.
No two fish look alike. Each spotted pattern on the fins is unique, making it possible to identify individual fish.
7. Blueface Angelfish
With a bright and friendly face, the Blueface Angelfish is a large fish with a soft spectrum of vivid blues and yellows. They grow up to one foot in length, making them one of the larger fish on our list.
They change color as they age. When young, they typically have blue, white, and black stripes. However, over time, the stripes fade into a checkered pattern, while the blue and yellow around their face increases in prominence.
They naturally prefer deep caves and coastal water. While they tend to do well in captivity, keep in mind their large size requires a fairly serious setup, with an aquarium of 220 gallons or more.
8. Royal Gramma
With a striking blend of purple and yellow, the Royal Gramma has a sleek, fanciful appearance. They grow up to three inches in length and live for up to five years. With long, compact bodies and large eyes, they have a slightly stern appearance that belies an easy-going nature.
They’re peaceful fish who often thrive in a busy aquarium. However, males are extremely territorial, so you’ll want only one in the tank. Otherwise, they’re peaceful and adventurous. These colorful fish are carnivorous, preferring to eat brine shrimp, fish eggs, and other meat.
Whether in the wild or in a tank, they like to spend time in caves and caverns. Some of them even sleep upside down!
9. The Fairy Wrasse
With an incredibly varied palette of potential colors, the Fairy Wrasse, or Cirrhilabrus, is a strikingly beautiful fish with a bright, neon glow. They’re delightfully mysterious, too. New species of Cirrhilabrus are still getting discovered, with only nine of the currently known 46 species were identified before 1980.
While their colorful appearance is their most obvious trait, don’t overlook their interesting eyes. The cornea splits into two parts, with the center acting as a close-up lens to spot small, fast prey.
Another distinct and interesting feature is their mucus cocoon. When it’s time to sleep, they wrap themselves in mucus secretion. It masks their scent so they can evade detection from predators.
You’ll find these vibrant fish in waters throughout the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. They typically swim together in small groups, where they feed anywhere from a few feet below the surface to depths of 200 feet or more.
10. Polka Dot Grouper
Also known as the Panther Grouper, this beautiful fish is easily recognizable due to its silver body and large, black spots. They’re bold, fast-moving, and hungry fish who eat just about any animal they can fit in their mouths.
They’re a popular aquarium fish, although they need at least a 50-gallon tank with top-of-the-line filtration. Be sure and add plenty of rocks, as that’s where the fish prefers to hide. It’ll leave other fish alone, provided they’re not too small.
As the fish grow, their spots increase in size and frequency, which is both fascinating to watch and can help you estimate their age.
A Few Other Colorful Saltwater Fish Worthy of Mention
As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea, and quite a few of them are colorful. Aside from the species listed above, here are a few others with an eye-catching beauty of their own.
- Clown Surgeon – A wide, flat fish with colorful stripes and a long tail.
- Moorish Idol – A triangular-shaped fish with wide black, yellow, and white stripes. They’re notoriously difficult to keep in an aquarium.
- Painted Sweetlips – Active, schooling fish that display bold, colorful bands as a juvenile.
- Long-nosed Filefish – A social fish with a long body, pointed nose, and yellow spots on a green body.
(You might also be interested in reading about the Most Colorful Freshwater Fish)
Saltwater fish are some of the most beautiful creatures in the world, with a practically unlimited variety of colors and markings. Whether you want to keep them in an aquarium at home, or simply enjoy watching them swim in the wild, the fish listed above are among the most colorful species alive.