Fish ID :: Angelfish

Angelfish are one of the most common fish on the reef, and they come in an incredible variety of colors and patterns. Because the live in shallow water – typically under 20m/65ft – they’re easily accessible to both snorkellers and divers of every level.

Angelfish collage

Their common name is said to come from their shape. Apparently if you turn them nose down (which, although I discourage, I am interested in watching you attempt), their silhouette is supposed to look like an angel. Let’s try.

Angelfish name silhouette
I guess I kind of see it?

More helpful for identifying them is their scientific name: pomacanthus. Broken down to its Greek roots it means “cover” + “thorn”, referring to the sharp thorn on their gill covers. Pretty straightforward. This thorn is a dead giveaway you’re looking at an angelfish.

Queen angelfish - thorns on gill cover
This queen angelfish has a lot of thorns on her (or possibly his) gill cover. On most species there is only one.

A few other features of the angelfish make it easy to identify. 
Angelfish ID

Juvenile angelfish can be even more striking than their adult counterparts. As they mature, their pattern and color change dramatically. In their teenage phase, they look almost like a double exposure of these two extremes.

Adult and juvenile emperor angelfish

male female symbolAnother dramatic transition also takes place for some angelfish. While they are all born female, they live in harems led by one dominant male. When he is removed, the next biggest in the harem will change sex to become male. Fish are weird.

Before you see some angelfish in action, a quick lesson in Bubblespeak. Talking to your dive buddy about angelfish underwater is pretty simple. You just draw a halo around your head like this.

Angelfish Hand Signal
Click the image to see the underwater hand signal for angelfish

Ok! Now that you know their darkest secrets, distinguishing characteristics and hand signs, it’s time to go for a dive with some real life angelfish!

dot line divider

butterflyfish hello

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