RED SEA FISH SPECIES
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There are 2,148 identified species of fish in the Red Sea and although the number of identified species continues to rise, as diving and monitoring activity inceases, a few species are considered vulnerable or threatened.
Additionally between ten and twenty per cent of Red Sea fish species are unknown of anywhere else in the world. This rich and unique but fragile diversity is due to the fringing reef which stretches for up to 2000 km along Egypt’s coastline alone and also to the low population levels of the surrounding coasts and the relatively (until recently) low level of commercial fishing activity. Most Egyptian commercial fishing takes place either in the Mediterranean or in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Suez over 500km north of Marsa Alam.
Traditional and recreational fishing, providing they follow the environmental laws and guidelines, should not pose a critical threat to this amazing ecosystem.
The most important of these rules are
On this page you will find information on just a few of the many interesting fish types you will find in the Red Sea off Marsa Alam.
Some might be more of interest for divers, especially for photography, as well as snorkelers – marked D – and some more for anglers – marked A. However, if you are thinking of angling, please check with the authorities first in case any regulations might have changed since this was written.
BARRACUDA ( D and A )
Most visitors will be interested in the most famous of the barracuda species – the great or giant barracuda.
This is a large torpedo shaped predator fish, usually solitary, with a voracious appetite and piranha-like teeth. It hunts using cunning ambush tactics, pouncing on its’ prey with speeds of up to 43km/h (27mph). And that’s not its only trick ! When gorged, these intelligent creatures sometimes act collectively to herd a school of fish in to shallow water, and stand guard until they are hungry enough to eat.
Young barracuda usually keep to the shallow bays, coastal reefs and nearshore areas but as they grow bigger they are more often found further offshore but still usually close to shipwrecks or island reefs.
When fully grown they normally weigh 4 to 10kg but the largest specimen ever caught was 50kg and 2 metres ( six and a half feet) long. They not infrequently grow to 1.8 metres and can be easily recognized, not just by their elongated shape and size, but also by their powerful lower jaw which juts out beyond the upper to give the fish’s head a pike-like appearance.
They have an exaggerated reputation of being dangerous to divers and snorkelers but as with all marine life you should treat them with respect and take care not to provoke them and never touch or feed them.
It is true that rarely they might mistake divers following them as competitor predators and even turn and bite but such incidents are extremely unusual. The risk might be marginally greater if there is poor visibility or you are wearing very shiny reflective items that might mimic their prey.
When hooked on a line they are very fast initially, often leaping out of the water, but they do not usually have the stamina for a long fight. They have been caught using both bait (especially silvery bait like mackerel or small bonito) or lures, but their razor like teeth will often cut through any line if it’s not wire. The barracuda has excellent eyesight so avoid using a hook which is too large but, most importantly, you should be extremely careful when handling them.
A medium sized predatory fish usually found either close to the shore or near island reefs. They are fast moving, swimming at up to 40 mph and prey on smaller fish and squid, usually near the surface. The bonito is closely related to the tuna and mackerel families. Larger specimens can often grow to around 75 cm (30 inches), occasionally to over a metre (40 inches). They have a lifespan of around six to eight years.
The bonito is a migratory species which lives in schools with a modest sized mouth, strong jaws and small but distinct teeth – and while a full grown adult can occasionally weigh close to 10 kg they normally weigh around two or three kilos.
Most anglers use trolling to catch bonito and because they usually surface to feed, it’s usual to keep the bait only just below the water line. A small hook is buried discreetly into the bait and a light line is used since a heavy one tends to reduce the number of bonito strikes.
It is a popular food in Egypt and across the Mediterranean – eaten grilled or baked and, because of its’ oily flesh, it also makes good bait for large predatory fish.
BUTTERFLY FISH (D)
A strikingly beautiful fish with flat brightly coloured and patterned bodies and the good news is that if you go diving or snorkeling you are likely to see many of them – at least in the Marsa Alam area – although in many parts of the world they have become endangered due to sea pollution and damage to their reef environments.
They are active throughout the day and move about with surprising bursts of speed, flitting and darting above the reef. This behaviour, along with the sharp dorsal fins of some species of butterfly fish, helps to protect them from predators.
They are a small fish, usually between 10 and 15cm in length (4 to 6 inches) with some species growing up to 20cm and with occasional large specimens reaching 30cm.
Normally most butterfly fish species are found around reefs at depths of less than 18 metres. They peck at the coral as they hunt worms, polyps and other small invertebrates but their diets also include plankton and sea anemones.
Some species prefer to live in small schools but others prefer to be solitary or to pair to a mating partner for life.
Any of 28 species of a small fish subfamily, usually bright in colour with three distinctive white bars, who have at least a Hollywood claim to fame as two such fishes (father and abducted son) starred in the Walt Disney blockbuster “Finding Nemo” which went on to become the bestselling DVD of all time.
But the real life story of the clownfish holds even more surprises than the film. The most immediately noticeable is its’ bizarre symbiotic relationship with the highly poisonous jellyfish like animal – the sea anemone. The clownfish, because it is apparently the only fish immune from the anemone’s poisonous sting, can use the animal’s tentacles as protection.
But the anemone is not just an occasional refuge for you will almost never see a clownfish apart from its’ host anemone and at the first sign of any predator it will take refuge among the poisonous web of tentacles.
In return for this favour, the clownfish feeds on small invertebrates which might otherwise endanger the anemone while its excretions provide nutrients for its host. Also, the fidgety clownfish boosts the water circulation around the anemone allowing it to increase its oxygen consumption.
Often a small school of clownfish will share the protection of a single anemone. The largest of the clownfish is always a female while the smaller are all male. However when the female dies, the largest male changes its’ gender and takes on the role of the dominant female looking over her “harem” of males.
DOGTOOTH TUNA (A)
A fast, large, powerful and seemingly intelligent fish with an amazing ability to evade capture by diving deep as soon as it is hooked and in so doing often manages to cut the tackle on deep underwater rocks.
Not the most attractive fish in the sea on account of its’ huge mouth and protruding powerful teeth (hence the name), it can often weigh over 40kg with one caught in November 2011 (but not in the Red Sea) tipping the scales at a massive 111 kg or 245 lbs – that’s 20 kg more than a boxer needs to qualify as a “heavyweight” ! Such monsters reach to almost 2 metres in length and can be too large to wrap your arms around.
EMPEROR ANGLEFISH (D)
Possibly the most easily recognized fish in the Red Sea and, along with the butterfly fish, one of the top contenders for any beauty contest. This omnivorous fish changes its’ markings and colours as it grows in size.
The young emperor has a blueish black body with concentric white circles but when they attain a size of around 8 to 12 cm (3 to 5 inches) they start to change in to their adult colours – blue with horizontal yellow stripes along its sides – and with a black “mask-like” stripe over its’ eyes and a white mouth.
Adults vary in size between about 10 and 40 cm (4 to 15 inches). It inhabits a huge area of the world’s oceans from the Red Sea all the way east to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Hawaiian Islands and in the last few years it has even started to colonize areas off Israel’s Mediterranean coast having migrated through the Suez canal.
It likes to live in or close to reefs, and can often be found hiding inside caves or holes. They are sometimes alone but can also be seen in pairs or sometimes in “harems” of one male with two or more females.
Their diet is varied and includes sponges, parasites, algae, worms and shellfish. Despite their docile looks, their powerful jaws can easily crush hard-shelled crustaceans. However, juveniles are more focused on parasites and can sometimes be seen cleaning other fish such as moray eels.
GROUPER (D & A)
Any of several species of fish belonging to the Serranidae family. They are all large solitary bottom dwelling carnivorous fish usually with a stout body and a big grumpy mouth with a few growing to over a metre in length with some adults weighing anything up to 100 kg.
They tend to swallow their prey rather than bite chunks off and target all types of marine life including other fish, octopuses and crustaceans. Their hunting methods vary with some of them preferring to ambushtheir prey while others are more active predators.
In some species its mouth and gills create a powerful vacuuming suction that traps near by prey. And another grouper species in the Red Sea have been observed teaming up with the giant moray eel as their hunting skills are complementary.
This is because while the grouper is the master of the open water, only the moray eel can access the narrow cracks and crevices in the rocks. So a grouper will signal to the moray eel when there is prey near-by through continuous head shaking.
When they team up together nowhere is safe. Though only one of them will eventually get its’ meal, they both have a better chance when they hunt together.
Groupers are usually found near the rocky bottom structure and the drop-off walls by reefs in water between 10 and 100 metres in depth.
While they are a popular food source they have slow reproduction rates which has made many types vulnerable and twenty of the world’s 162 species of grouper are now threatened with extinction. So please take care if you are fishing that you are not fishing for any vulnerable or threatened species. If, however, your boat Captain does say that you are able to target grouper, then you should use bait caught near the sea bottom with heavy tackle.
KING MACKEREL (A)
A voracious and opportunistic carnivore with razor sharp teeth. What they prey on depends on their size which varies greatly. Some specimens weigh a mere 2 kg but some can weigh up to 40 kg (90 lbs) or more and can reach a length of 1.6 metres or about five and a half feet. The King Mackerel’s flesh is greyish in colour due to its high fat content.
The King Mackerel feeds on small fish and squid and can sometimes be seen leaping out of the water in pursuit of its prey. Its traditional hunting grounds are the tropical and subtropical seas of the mid-Atlantic coasts of Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States. However, as you will see from the Youtube video ( either following or right), it’s somehow found its way to the Red Sea.
The King Mackerel however itself sometimes falls prey to sharks and dolphins so don’t be surprised if while hauling in your catch you end up in a sudden tug of war.
PARROT FISH (D)
It’s easy to see how they earned their name. First, they have numerous tiny teeth arranged in a tight formation along the outside of their jaws forming a parrot-like beak and second they all display beautifully bright colours.
The size of the adult fish varies considerably between species but usually they are between 30 and 50 cm in length although occasionally some species attain lengths of one metre or more.
Parrot fish are a group of at least eighty species of fish that are a subfamily of the wrasses and they are usually found on reefs or sea grass beds. They are active during the day and hide in the reef’s nooks and crevices by night. As they rest they produce a transparent cocoon which might hide help their smell from predators.
They are a schooling fish and fortunately, for the snorkeler, they are fairly indifferent to humans.
The parrot fish is for the most part herbivorous but its diet extends to a wide range of reef organisms so it is not a strict vegetarian.
A thriving parrot fish population is a great asset to any reef as they help to protect the coral from being overwhelmed by algae and because of their powerful beaks they are able to digest reef rock along with algae, excreting it as sand. A parrot fish can produce 90 kilograms of sand in a single year. So your beautiful Marsa Alam beach may owe a lot to parrot fish poo !
Anglers should avoid targeting parrot fish because of their importance to the reef ecosystem.
SPANGLED EMPEROR (A)
Sometimes are also referred to as spangles, spangos or spanglies, they are a non-migratory medium sized fish usually found at a depth of 10 to 80 metres near coral reefs, lagoons, mangrove swamps or sea grass beds.
The spango is a carnivorous bottom feeder preying on sea urchins, star fish, mollusks, crabs, shrimp and sometimes small fish. However its’ diet is surprisingly diverse and in the youtube video clip (right) you can see two emperors (in the last section of the clip) at Marsa Shagra Bay battling over a still alive snake eel !
The fish has strong teeth, scaleless cheeks and large eyes and while typically around 45 cm in length with a weight of between 4 and 7 kg, they can grow up to 87 cm in length with a maximum lifespan of 28 years.
An interesting aspect of the species is that some of them change sex from female to male prior to reaching sexual maturity.
Anglers please note that they often take bait without swallowing so avoid striking early as this will mean the hook may loose contact from the spango’s relatively hard mouth. It’s best to use squid or shellfish bait on light tackle.
The fish makes a nutritious meal and very tasty when stuffed with herbs and baked whole.