Meet hinalea ‘akilolo, the Hawaiian yellow-tail coris that looks like the famous anemone fish Nemo.
Often when I am out diving and shooting underwater movies of our fish here in Hawai‘i, I have tourists tell me that they just saw a “Nemo fish” out on the reef. Most people do not realize that we do not have anemone fish here in Hawai‘i, but we do have a fish that looks very similar.
Anemone fish occur on most of the Pacific and Indonesian tropical islands, where they live in large, sea anemones that can grow up to several feet wide. The anemones have stinging cells to kill and eat small, drifting sea creatures, but the anemone fish is immune to these powerful stinging cells. A whole family of anemone fish will often live in one large anemone, and they are protected from predators because they can hide in the stinging tentacles without being harmed.
Here in Hawai‘i we do not have any large anemone species, so there would not be any good place for an anemone fish to live. Any anemone fish here in Hawai‘i would be easy prey for our larger fish like the jacks. We do have a fish species in Hawai‘i that has the same colors of the anemone fish, but only when it is a baby. The yellow-tail coris baby is red, black and white when it is about four inches long, so it is about the same size as an anemone fish.
As the yellow-tail coris grows, it totally changes colors, and as an adult it is yellow, red and blue with white speckles.
Many Hawaiian fish species have a complete color change as they grow from babies to adults, and even the adults may be different colors, so it is often hard to know what baby is related to which adult. Hinalea ‘akilolo babies are super hard to take pictures of, whereas the anemone-fish are super easy to photograph. The yellow-tail coris do not have a stinging anemone to hide in to stay safe from predators, so it darts around reefs super fast and almost never stops to rest. Most people out snorkeling only get a brief look at these colorful baby coris as they will dart into a crack in the lava reef or even bury under the sand when you approach them.
You can see the yellow-tail coris in action in the movie “The World’s Guide to Hawaiian Fish” available for online viewing. You can find my underwater educational series up on my web atunderwater2web.com.
Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hawai‘i, and is co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawai‘i go to reefguardianshawaii.org.