The Reef Beautician /Dentist
The Bluestreaked Cleaner Wrasse
The fastidious and diplomatic nature of the reef cleaning station is impressive. The technicians are nimble fish with a bold, electric blue stripe running the length of their body, Labroides dimidiatus. The venue can be any rocky outcrop, shelf or coral head. Fish and turtles stop in for a free aquatic body scrub, mani-pedi, or teeth whitening (algae and parasite removal is not as catchy and I imagine they would use something more modern on their signage). Customers float through and they rush out like 50’s gas station attendants, plucking, pulling and buffing under fins and scales, between teeth and gill rakers. This is a neutral zone, the Switzerland of the reef world, nobody eats the beauticians and nobody is turned away. You could be a 6-foot toothy shark or a 3 inch angelfish, and everyone is accepted, no discrimination.
Or is there?
The creatures in this particular bay are heavily fished, giving them a natural fear of people. My slow, relatively cumbersome snorkeling is regarded with suspicion. I’m a floating Godzilla creating waves of panicked colorful reef fish spasming with their evasive maneuvers. Trying my best to look benign and nonthreatening I float by the stations, again and again and again. The secret “I’m ready to be cleaned now” ON button eludes me. There are no parasites hanging off my legs or algae growing on my back, this alien air breather does not really NEED it so it’s not that surprising to be ignored. I am American, wanting what I don’t need comes natural to me. I want to be cleaned too. I want to feel included in the action, a part of the community, treated like everyone else.
Side Note: It has been a lonely last few months out on this island, I’m logging a lot of alone time. I am not sure how it started but there is now a regular dialogue between me and the Tiger gecko living in my kitchen. He responds to my random thoughtful statements so I justify talking out loud “to him” because he is the only one listening. I started calling him Wilson but he didn’t like it so I stopped.
The executive decision was made (between me, myself and Wilson) to do a daily survey of what has not worked so far. Yesterday I wore the red polka dot bikini, no sunscreen, possible remnants of bug spray and sweat, high tide, morning. Morning mental notes that will help me get closer to discovering the magic combination.
On an early morning low tide, after weeks of rejection a break through. (Powder blue bikini with lavender piping, sporty and supportive, no bug spray). Floating over an unimpressive algae covered rock, I stood up to clear the fog from my mask and a pair of wrasses peeked out to investigate. They swam around my legs, up and around down and through. Finally! “Yaaaaay!” floated up out of the snorkel. Perhaps business was slow at this station. They politely gave me a once over and pecked a few times here and there until they were satisfied. Their approval felt good. Godzilla can make friends with the natives.
One fine Day. A nice leisurely morning swim. The light danced cheerfully over the benthos, fish flitting about the reef in a less panicked pattern than usual. Suddenly, out of depths: CHOMP! CHOMP! CHOMP! Excessively strong pain to the derrière! Then another one! Yikes!
A big fat cleaner wrasse looked up at me, straight in the eyes. Like a giddy teen I giggled. He continuing to peck his way down my legs. Unexpectedly being bitten from behind, on your behind, is always startling but all is immediately forgiven in the neutral land of Switzerland.
For the rest of the week, cleaner wrasses zipped out to clean me at every rocky outcrop. What was different? Had my leg hair grown out significantly? More freckles than last week? More bug bites? Maybe some new moles, skin tags, or parasites? Algae growth higher than usual? I can only conclude that juicy gossip is unstoppable on an island. Word got out around the reef that I was safe, game for some cleaning and a nice piece of ass. I am now accepted by my fishy neighbors and colleagues, they can’t get enough of me.
How do you turn on a cleaner wrasse? I have no clue but I did it.
Swim for your Life! It’s GODZILLA!! …..or is it?