Divers that slow down while touring the reefs will find that they have more opportunities to witness some interesting behaviors â€“ hunting, courting, mating, egg laying, egg tending, and territorial displays. However, I donâ€™t think that anything is quite as cool, nor entertaining, as the “cleaning stations” that can be found on every tropical reef. This is where fish (including eels and sharks), as well as turtles and other open ocean critters like manta rays come for regular de-lousing by cleaner fish and shrimps.
Divers tend to disrupt the process when they arrive on scene, and it takes quite some time of just sitting back a bit, settling in (without touching the reef!) and watching without moving before the animals will again go about their business. It can be difficult to capture images or video of the behavior as fish being cleaned are in a vulnerable position, and are usually very skittish when approached.
It is an amazing display of cooperation â€” the critters that come in to be cleaned hover quietly, then open their mouths and their gills. The little striped cleaner wrasse dart in and around, pecking off small parasites that might otherwise adversely affect the health of the animal, and at the same time, they are getting a snack. The larger animals could easily swallow the little fishes â€” but they donâ€™t â€” the little fish are given immunity from being consumed so that they can live on to clean another day.
Cleaner shrimp tend to inhabit little divots or crevices in the reef, where animals wanting to be cleaned drop by for a session. As you will see in some of the photos in this gallery, these little shrimps are also very obliging about cleaning the nails, and teeth (!!!) of divers, when presented nicely to them. Youâ€™ll note that in a couple of my images, the divers have their regulators out of their mouths. These are very experienced divers who are comfortable with this. Please use caution when attempting to entice shrimps into a dental hygiene appointment â€” youâ€™ll need to feel okay about letting little creepy crawlies roam around in your mouth, and possibly have to spit them out to replace your regulator!
Iâ€™ve seen also butterfly fish actively cleaning other animals â€” mostly the shells of turtles, and, at the mother of all cleaning stations at a famous dives site called Alycone in Costa Ricaâ€™s Cocos Islands, swarms of butterfly fish clean the legions of hammerhead sharks that migrate there at certain times of the year, and that come in out of the blue to the top of the (deep) reef to be de-loused. Itâ€™s thrilling to witness.