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Woman snorkelling around coral reef looking at the orange fish

12 Amazing Coral Reef Animals and Where to Find Them

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By Amelia Bristow

Last updated: 31st May 2024

Our oceans are home to all kinds of beautiful coral reef animals, plants and objects. Coral reefs are home to millions of unique species. Snorkelling allows you to explore these fantastic reefs like a real-life Ariel and see a wide variety of spectacularly colourful fish and stunning sea turtles. There are so many animals to discover, so let's dive into our list featuring some of the most amazing coral reef creatures!

1. Manta Rays 

Manta ray swimming along.

Manta rays can be found all around the world. Their name originates from Spanish as ‘manta’ translates to ‘blanket’, alluding to their shape. Manta rays are graceful creatures that glide through our oceans and can grow up to 8 metres wide in their wingspan! Giant manta rays live alone or in small groups, typically congregating to feed. Fancy having the chance to witness the beauty of a manta ray? Head over and take a look at our Bali group trips, where you can snorkel in the best spots during your trip! On our Bali Intro Plus you’ll have a private boat trip on day 13 to Nusa Lembongan to swim with Manta Rays. 

Manta rays also visit coral to stop at the cleaning stations… I know, just like Shark’s Tale right?! Fish will clean up the mantas by removing parasites and dead skin cells. Individual mantas often return to the same cleaning spot, so they are the best regular customers to get! 

Found in: Bali, Philippines, Thailand and Australia

2. Butterflyfish

yellow and white striped butterflyfish swimming through the coral reef

There are at least 114 species of butterflyfish. Butterflyfish are one of the most widespread species of tropical fish, so you’re likely to spot them in many different coral reefs. These little fish spend their days pecking at coral rock formations with long, thin snouts, searching for small water animals like worms. You’ll spot them swimming around in small schools or alone until they find a partner, or you can call it a soul mate as they’ll stay together for life (how cute)!

These fish mostly have intricate patterns on their bodies with striking backgrounds of blue, red, orange, or yellow. Many have dark bands across their eyes and round, eye-like dots on their bodies. The pattern confuses predators in which direction they’re swimming and where to strike! 

Found in: Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia

3. Sea turtle

Sea turtle swimming to the surface of the water

Across our oceans, there are seven different species of sea turtles, which are all simply magical. Sea turtles live in varied habitats depending on where they are. Snorkel along and find them swimming amongst pretty coral reefs or in shallow seagrass beds.

Over the years, turtles have faced the destruction of their habitats and threats to their survival due to being killed for their skin, meat and eggs. Turtles come ashore to nest and lay eggs, and this cycle can be a difficult and stressful time due to environmental changes and natural difficulties. If you feel strongly towards these ancient mariners, lend a hand and check out our Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation!

Would you like the opportunity to admire these turtles? Check out our article The Best Places in the World to See Sea Turtles to learn more about these beautiful creatures and where you can find them!

Found in: Australia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Madagascar  

4. Bartlett’s Anthias

A close up of a bright pink bodied fish with yellow fins against a black sea background

These funky fish are vibrant and super cool, with bright pink bodies with contrasting yellow fins. Bartlett’s Anthias are known to be lively and active day to day. These colourful coral reef fish are constantly swimming around and exploring their surroundings. So, chances are that if you spot one Bartlett’s Anthias, they’ll be running errands around the reef! 

If you find yourself snorkelling in South East Asia, keep an eye out around the outer reefs. Plus, if you spot one, there’s likely to be loads more about it as they often live in shoals. 

Found in: Caroline Islands, Marshall Islands, and Tonga

5. Coral

Colourful coral reefs with little orange fish surrounding it

Across our oceans, there are about six thousand species of coral, where they form a reef in some areas. You can find these types of coral reefs mainly in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. These reefs provide food and habitats for around twenty-five percent of the world's fish.

A common misconception is that coral reefs are plants, but they are actually living organisms with a hard skeletal exterior or plant-like tentacles. Corals are host to many different creatures that live and grow around them and are often dependent on each other for survival. The coral provides shelter and protection for other coral reef animals, and the animals help eat unwanted or harmful algae. 

Respecting the coral reefs when snorkelling is critical because of their fragility and the importance of survival for other coral reef animals. The world has lost nearly 20% of its coral reefs and the remaining coral reefs are still under threat today. Warming waters and pollution lead to coral bleaching, where the coral turns white. This makes the coral lose its vibrant colour and eventually die.

Found in: Australia, the Red Sea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and the Maldives

6. Seahorses

Yellow seahorse that is swimming upright on pink coral

Seahorses are named after their similarly horse-shaped head. These tiny carnivore creatures swim upright and can be found in seaweed areas and among other plants. There are also at least 50 different species of seahorses across the world! Some of these seahorse species are vulnerable as they are captured and used medically or for the pet trade. Seahorses in the pet trade are likely due to their quirky look compared to other coral reef animals. 

You can spot various coloured seahorses commonly in Indonesian coral reefs amongst the seagrass. Because of their tiny size, they are difficult to spot, so keep your eyes peeled.

Found in: Worldwide 

7. Clown Anemonefish

Three clownfish amongst pink anemone

Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without our bright orange and white striped fish from Finding Nemo. The most iconic fish of all… a clownfish! Find Nemo amongst coral and anemone as the two species live in partnership! You’ll find Nemo amongst the tentacles, gaining protection against predators with the nasty stings of the anemone. The clown anemonefish will get the leftovers of the anemone’s meals or even eat the parasites, keeping the anemone nice and clean! 

Want to see Nemo in real life? Check out our Australia East Coast Adventure for a chance to go snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef! Here, you’ll be able to tick a bunch of different coral reef animals off your list. But remember, if you can’t spot Nemo, don’t get your hopes down. Just keep swimming! But if travelling the East Coast isn’t your thing, look at our Great Barrier Reef Liveaboard Dive Trip, where you can experience up to 11 dives over 3 days.

Found in: Red Sea, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines

8. Moon jellyfish

purple moon jellyfish floating in the dark sea

Striking with Finding Nemo, you might also be able to find this little guy (Dory calls him Squishy, but we decided not to test that theory…) floating about our oceans, commonly known as a moon jellyfish. These pretty coloured jellyfish roam the seas and are identifiable by the four purple circles on the top of their dome-shaped body. 

Jellyfish have no heart, blood or brain! They are the oldest multi-organ animal. There is also evidence that the moon jellyfish existed over 500 million years ago, predating dinosaurs. 

You can spot and admire their graceful movements from afar in warmer environments. The moon jellyfish are the least threatening to humans, but they can still hold a nasty sting. 

Found in: Worldwide

9. Whales

Humpback whale jumping out of the water

Over 30 different types of whale and dolphin species exist in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. This habitat gives a wide range of food choices. The most common whales in these waters are Humpback Whales and Dwarf Minke Whales.

Humpback whales are admired for their playful personalities as they tail slap and back jump along the surface. They are enormous, growing between 12 and 16 metres long. You can spot humpback whales from Cairns down to the Whitsundays. If you cannot spot them whilst there, why not try singing your best whale song? You never know it might just work.

Dwarf minke whales are also playful and social, as they often swim to the boats out of curiosity. They are smaller than humpback whales as they grow to an average of 8 metres long. 

Want to witness these enormous beauties? Take a peek at our Australia trips to have a chance to watch whales or witness them whilst snorkelling. Or have a look at our Sailing Whitsundays & Great Barrier Reef to experience Australia's natural beauty and a chance to swim with the coral reef animals!

Found in: Australia, South America 

10. Moorish Idol

Black and yellow striped moorish idol next to some coral

Moorish Idols are black and yellow striped fish often found in the clear waters of Southeast Asia. The pattern and slight shape of the Moorish Idol are ideal for confusing predators by disrupting them on where the fish begins and ends. Impressive right? 

Moorish Idol are active fish during the day by exploring their surrounding area. They are a widespread species, and you’ll be able to spot them around the world. But you’ll have a high chance of spotting this coral reef animal in Hawaii. Another place that’s great for spotting the Moorish Idol is the Galapagos Islands. If this fish is taking to your fancy, check out our Galapagos Island Adventure

Found in: Red Sea, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines 

11. Harlequin Shrimp 

blue and white spotted harlequin shrimp on the edge of a piece of coral

Adorned in funky patterns, these shrimp live in shallow coral reefs and rocky areas where they can hide and protect themselves. Typically, female Harlequin shrimp are larger than males. They are also powerful little creatures as they often feed on starfish! Harlequin Shrimp are usually found in pairs, working together to find their prey. You can find this coral reef animal across the Indo-Pacific, including the Great Barrier Reef! 

If you want to spot this unique coral reef animal, check out our Philippines trips like our Philippines Intro, where you can spend days snorkelling in Coron and Palawan. 

Found in: Hawaiian Islands, Indonesia, Central America and the Philippines

12. Blue Tang

Blue tang swimming next to colourful coral

You will probably recognise this coral reef animal from Finding Nemo, too! Yep, this natural blue fish is also known as the one and only Dory. The Blue Tang inhabit the Caribbean Sea coral reefs. These little Dorys are herbivores and clean up the coral by nibbling on the damaging algae which can ruin the fragile reef. Without the blue tangs, the whole food chain would be impacted, becoming problematic for this sensitive ecosystem as the coral would die from being suffocated by the plants. So, they help preserve these stunning areas of our oceans.

Found in: Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Madagascar and Australia

 

Those coral reef animals were epic! You may find one animal interesting in particular or perhaps a few. There is a massive variety of coral reef animals, from the small but mighty harlequin shrimp to the enormous but friendly humpback whales, there is so much to see! If you’re keen on seeing these coral reef animals and discovering more, then why not learn to scuba dive? Learning to dive can help you admire all of your favourite Finding Nemo and Shark Tale characters. But remember, as a wise shark once said: “Fish are friends, not food”!

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