Going to the Cleaners: Diving the World’s Best Cleaning Stations

Saddleback Fish Underwater Photo With Cleaner Shrimp

Judy G

Saddleback Anemone fish and Shrimp

When I came across this anemone and its resident fish, it was like an inhabited island in an ocean of sand. There was a lot going on as the Saddleback fish were nesting, and therefore quite protective of their anemone. This particular variety of anemone fish can be quite bold and aggressive, and will charge and nip divers anywhere in the vicinity of their nest. So I braved the pinging attacks, and managed to get this shot of a fish with shrimp crawling on him — assumedly the fish was getting a bit of a grooming session by the shrimp.

Divers that slow down while touring the reefs will find that they have more opportunities to witness some interesting behaviors – hunting, courting, mating, egg laying, egg tending, and territorial displays. However, I don’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 — 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 — but they don’t — the little fish are given immunity from being consumed so that they can live on to clean another day.

Grouper Grand Cayman Underwater Photo Cleaner Fish

Judy G

Grand Cayman Grouper

The groupers in Grand Cayman were unusual — many of them did not seem to mind divers in their faces, and carried on with their cleaning routines, even as I took a series of photos. This guy is getting the works — numerous small cleaner fish are busy on him — in mouth, gills, around eyes, and cleaning his skin.

Eel Underwater Photo Cleaner Fish

Judy G

Thailand Eel

I more often see eels being cleaned by shrimp, as eels tend to like to hang out in holes and crevices — which is where the cleaner shrimp tend to congregate.

Puffer Fish Underwater Photo Cleaner Fish

Judy G

Bucky and the Cleaning Crew

This was a little unusual — I haven’t often seen these little yellow fish in cleaning mode, but this puffer fish was clearly getting cleaned by this little fish when I came across them.

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. You’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 — you’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!

Diver Manicure Underwater Photo Cleaner Shrimp

Judy G

Bali Manicure

This is my oldest daughter getting her nails done on a cleaning station near the Liberty Wreck, in Tulamben, Bali. Our dive guide had told us about this spot before the dive, and planned to take us to check it out. Once the kids saw him getting nails and teeth cleaned, they were all over it.

Cleaner Fish Underwater Photo in Mouth Person

Judy G

Dental Hygiene in Bali

This is the same cleaning station as I mentioned above, near the Liberty Wreck. I love how this little fish is peeking out of my kid’s mouth. She thought this was great fun. I was happy to take the pictures and leave the bugs in mouth thing to them ;^).

Diver Underwater Photo Cleaner Shrimp

Judy G

Sam’s Session

This is a an image of a crew member from the N’aia liveaboard in Fiji offering up his pearly whites to the shrimps for a little touch up. He knew where this cleaning station was on the site we were diving, and suggested before the dive that we set up this shot.

I’ve seen also butterfly fish actively cleaning other animals — mostly the shells of turtles, and, at the mother of all cleaning stations at a famous dives site called Alycone in Costa Rica’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. It’s thrilling to witness.

Hammerhead Sharks Underwater Photo Costa Rica With Cleaning Fish

Judy G

The Mother of All Cleaning Stations

This was taken at Alcyone Seamount, off of Cocos Island, in Costa Rica. This infamous site is a huge cleaning station for the swarms of hammerhead sharks that migrate to this part of the world at a certain time of the year. The sharks come in from the blue to be cleaned by the butterfly fish that hover above the reef waiting for them. This is exhilarating, deep diving.

Judy G is a traveling underwater photographer. Check out her blog HERE and follow her on Facebook: Judy G Diver

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