Published September 30, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott
I never imagined that having furry, shedding legs would provide me with a unusual marine animal experience, but that’s the fun of the ocean. You never know what’s going to happen.
One day, while snorkeling in about five feet of water, I stopped to photograph a clownfish in an anemone. I placed the tips of my fins on the seafloor rubble and held very still.
As I watched the clownfish through the viewfinder, I felt a tickle on my shin and then a painful little tug. A 4-inch-long cleaner wrasse was nibbling my skin and pulling my hairs. Apparently I had planted myself in the middle of a wrasse-cleaning station.
This was not an exceptionally bold fish. Cleaner wrasses are common reef fish that make their living picking off mucus, parasites and dead skin from fish, and apparently sometimes off people. The wrasses also eat growth from turtle shells, pick scraps from shark lips and clean the teeth of open-mouthed moray eels.
Fish book photos often show cleaner wrasses poking their pointy snouts inside the gills of grateful-looking fish.
The wrasses’ customers seem to love the service, flocking to the wrasse cleaning stations usually held in an overhang or indentation of the reef.
Often two, and sometimes up to five, cleaner wrasses work a station together. The customers wait patiently, sometimes even lining up one behind the other. When it’s their turn, the fish assume postures that seems to say, “A little higher and to the left, please. Ah, yes, that’s it.”
The cleaner wrasse gets a meal, and the fish gets a spa treatment.
Hawaii hosts one endemic cleaner wrasse, a yellow and purple beauty seen commonly on our reefs.
The South Pacific hosts five species.
All are about 4 inches long, and like all wrasses, they change sex.
Cleaner wrasses begin life as females, and between 1 and 3 years old, depending on the need in the community, they change to males. Each male in a vicinity spawns with up to 12 females.
I’ve been home only a day, and already I’m reminiscing fondly about my two-month voyage through the Society Islands. It seems that nearly everything I do reminds me of some part of that trip.
Even shaving my legs.
Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com
©2013 Susan Scott