Hawaii News | Ocean Watch Cleaner wrasses exfoliate, pick parasites from others By Susan Scott Sept. 30, 2013 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! SUSAN SCOTT PHOTOA striped cleaner wrasse in Raiatea nibbles on Susan Scott’s leg. Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. Part of the fun of a long offshore sailing trip is taking a break from grooming chores such as shaving. Men aboard Honu typically grow beards, and we women get fuzzy legs. After weeks of sun, salt and wind exposure, we also get flaky skin. 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. ——— Reach Susan Scott at www.susanscott.net. Previous Story 911 Report Next Story Heroes reuniting in 'triumph'