Published July 28, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott
While diving or snorkeling, it’s a rare moment I fearlessly stick my hand into a dark hole in the reef. Lately, however, I’ve been doing just that. And not just once. I do it over and over, exploring several pukas with my bare hand.
This gesture isn’t some new-found bravery I’m testing. It’s play. I have discovered a treasure trove of banded coral shrimp.
Banded coral shrimp, also called barber pole shrimp, are some of Hawaii’s most adorable and entertaining reef animals. The red-and-white bands on the body and legs of these shrimp give them a vivid, festive appearance. They look like walking candy canes.
Also, if you look carefully, you may see a flash of iridescent purple or blue on the shrimp, especially under the chest where the legs join the body.
Speaking of legs, banded shrimp have some remarkable appendages. Like all shrimp, banded have a total of 10. But unlike most others, these shrimps’ first three pairs of legs bear pincers.
Of these pincered pairs, the third are greatly enlarged and are banded like the shrimp’s body. It’s these long, curved legs that give the shrimp their plucky air. When confronted, the animal stands tall on its big legs, facing even a monster-sized human with amazing boldness.
But be gentle with this spunky shrimp. If it feels threatened, the creature can drop its flashy legs like a gecko drops its tail. The legs grow back, but in the meantime, the shrimp is handicapped.
From the head of this colorful creature flow six delicate white antennae, some of which are two to three times as long as the shrimp’s 2-inch body.
As if all this isn’t enough to give a diver pause, there’s the shrimps’ quaint behavior. If you slowly extend a hand toward these creatures, they don’t back deeper into their holes. Instead, they often come to check you out. One I recently encountered explored my forefinger with its antennae for long moments.
This bold “feeling” behavior comes from the fact that banded shrimp, and several similar species, are cleaner shrimp. Such so-called shrimp crawl over fishes’ bodies, gills and even inside their mouths to eat parasites and dead tissue.
The shrimp sit in their tiny caves waving their whiplike antennae out the door to signal passing fish. When one lingers, the shrimp touches it with the antennae until the fish becomes still. After this soothing “backrub,” the shrimp then crawls over the fish’s body picking off tidbits of food.
Fish seem to love this service. In my secret place, cardinalfish and tangs lingered about like it was the entrance to a favorite spa.
The reason my place is secret is that banded coral shrimp are collected like mad for home aquariums. I want my shrimp to stay where they are.
Banded coral shrimp usually live in male-female pairs. But if you put two that weren’t previously living together into a tank, one often kills the other.
I’ll never tire of watching these little peppermint sticks perform their tricks. It’s well worth putting a hand in a hole.