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Become a Fish I.D. Ninja

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By Guest Blogger Henley Spiers

Geeky admission of the day: I love fish identification. Trying to figure out what marine life surrounds me is a personal obsession on every dive, and with the ocean’s huge diversity it is an almost never-ending challenge.

ocean, coral and fish

For those who share, or wish to develop, this passion, I’ve developed a ninja-belt system. You can easily create your own ninja belt based on your location; the one below is built around marine life found in Bali. The principle is simple — work your way from a white belt to a gold belt by spotting each fish or creature in its respective category. And no cheating — spot them yourself rather than relying on your dive guide. Start with the common reef fish families, such as butterflyfish, surgeons and damselfish. With around 20,000 fish species in the world, it’s best to start with the broader family groupings. Hint: Don’t use color as the main identifying factor, but rather consider the type of fins and mouth, as well as the body shape and overall size when identifying a fish. Once you’re starting to nail the common families, progress to specific species and rarer marine life such as barracuda and moray eels. If you’re lucky enough to find an ornate ghost pipefish in the gold belt then tick that off but you’ll need to complete the preceding belts in order to achieve true gold belt status. I told you I was obsessed.

Ninja Belt

Marine Life Spotted


mola mola; ornate ghost Pipefish; marble complex shrimp; turtle; pygmy seahorse; shark


manta ray; frogfish; cuttlefish; leaf scorpionfish; twinspot lionfish; porcelain crab; octopus; anemone shrimp; three cool nudibranches; Napoleon wrasse


scorpionfish; mantis shrimp; lobster; hermit crab; zebra lionfish; squat shrimp; two cool nudibranches; juvenile boxfish; bumphead parrotfish


lionfish; lizardfish; banded boxer shrimp; ribbon eel; flounder; one cool  nudibranch; barracuda


blue-spotted stingray; unicornfish; clown triggerfish; clam; moray eel; midnight snapper; batfish; cushion star 


redtooth triggerfish; pyramid butterflyfish; grouper; garden eel; goby; pink anemonefish; toby; pufferfish; urchin


butterflyfish; surgeonfish; damselfish; fusiliers; angelfish; triggerfish; parrotfish; wrasse; sea star

As you progress through the ninja belts you’ll start spotting creatures that even professional dive guides would be proud of: frogfish, scorpionfish and maybe even a pygmy seahorse. The key here is to not only know what you’re looking for, but also where to find it. Understanding marine life’s preferred habitats is a great way to improve your identification skills. For example, anemones are a hotbed of activity, acting as a home for or anemonefish, but also for porcelain crabs and lots of types of shrimp.

You don’t even need to be on a dive to get started. Invest in a good marine life identification book (the series by Ned DeLoach and Paul Humann is excellent) and start studying up at home. Read up on the key characteristics of gobies, for example, and check out some fish pictures. Once you’re diving, you’ll already be on the lookout. Get into the habit of looking up marine life you saw on the dive immediately after you surface — local dive pros will be happy to help you identify what you saw, and keen to know if there is anything in particular you’d like to see. So join me — embrace you inner marine geek and get working on that gold belt.

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