The 1998 global coral bleaching event was the largest recorded historical disturbance of coral reefs and resulted in extensive habitat loss. Annual censuses of reef fish community structure over a 12-year period spanning the bleaching event revealed a marked phase shift from a prebleach to postbleach assemblage. Surprisingly, we found that the bleaching event had no detectable effect on the abundance, diversity or species richness of a local cryptobenthic reef fish community. Furthermore, there is no evidence of regeneration even after 5–35 generations of these short-lived species. These results have significant implications for our understanding of the response of coral reef ecosystems to global warming and highlight the importance of selecting appropriate criteria for evaluating reef resilience.