Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cleaning Stations - Spas of the Sea

Image by Amy Kelley - Stoplight Parrotfish at cleaning station
Believe it or not, sea creatures have to "bathe" and visit the "dentist" to stay healthy.  They must get rid of internal and external parasites  and dead skin by getting their scales, teeth, nostrils, and gills cleaned.  

There are specific spots around the reef that are known as cleaning stations.  Fish and creatures that are familiar with the reef already know where to go, but visitors just passing through look for signs.  Cleaning stations are often on top of a coral head or in spaces between rocks or coral heads.  They are "staffed" by small fish such as wrasse and gobies, as well as cleaner shrimp.  

Image by Soratobi1 via Wikipedia
Image by Nathanial Kelley - Petersen Cleaner Shrimp

Cleaner shrimp wave their antennae around wildly (much like the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man) to let their "customers" know that they are open for business.  The fish and sea creatures swim up to a cleaning station and take the proper position to indicate that they want to be cleaned.  Opening their mouth wide or inclining their body lets the cleaners know that it's time to get down to business.    

Why do the cleaner fish and shrimp do this?  Do they get paid?  Yes, they do.  In the form of food.  These cleaners depend on the parasites and tiny organisms the pluck off of their customers.

Image by Saad Alafaliq via Flickr  - Moray eel at a cleaning station

Image by Philippe Bourjon via Wikipedia - Goat fish at a cleaning station
Image by Richard Ling via Wikipedia - Grouper at a cleaning station

But why don't the bigger creatures just eat the cleaners?  Well, if they did, they would throw off the natural balance that exists among the reef creatures and the cleaners would no longer clean them.  As a result, the bigger creatures would end up covered by parasites which they cannot remove on their own, and they would ultimately die.  This relationship of creatures working cooperatively and helping one another is called a symbiotic relationship.

Image by Nathanial Kelley - Great barracuda at a cleaning station
It's amazing to see this symbiotic relationship in action.  Especially when you get to see a top predator, like a barracuda, opening it's mouth, exposing its sharp teeth, and allowing small fish and shrimp to clean between his teeth and inside of his gills.  Not to mention the bravery of those little guys crawling into the mouth of a fish that would happily eat them under other circumstances.  But the cleaning station is a safe zone, and they all respect that fact.

Image by Amy Kelley - Blue tang at a cleaning station

Next time you are snorkeling or diving near a coral reef, slow down so you can observe the fish and their behaviors.  Now that you know what to look for, you will likely be able to find a fish visiting a cleaning station!  Don't get too close, or the fish being cleaned will get scared and swim away.  Take a minute and watch the cleaner fish and shrimp do their job, while the bigger fish enjoys his spa treatmentIsn't nature incredible?



  1. Pretty interesting Amy! I hope the day comes when humans can have symbiotic relationships with one another. Great blog! Love you guys! Mamacita xoxo

  2. You can visit a cleaning station and get your teeth cleaned for FREE !