Blue streak cleaner wrasse are programmed to seek out tidbits from mouths, whoever the owner - but eyes and fingers can also be worth investigating.
Louisa Butler enjoys some free cosmetic attention in the Red Sea with husband Adam Butler, who took the pictures
IF YOU HAVE DIVED IN SHARM EL SHEIKH in the Red Sea during summer, you'll know the less-than-ideal feeling of 'boiling in the bag' as you wait to jump off the back of your dive boat. With wetsuit, full kit and fins on, you have waddled towards the water while having a good spit into your mask. You giant-stride into the cool water like a hippo hitting a David Hockney pool. Ah, so that's how Moses parted the Red Sea. Miracle, shmiracle! Once in the water, you descend and transform from an ungainly kitted-up monstrosity to a sleek, neutrally bouyant underwater animal on the hunt for thrills at a relaxed pace. You're weightless, you're flying - you float effortlessly, admiring the sub-aqua landscape and the delights it houses. So there you are, on your third or fourth dive of the holiday, gracefully finning along. The underwater seascape takes your breath away (though no more than 20 bar, we hope). You see clownfish nestle in their anemone homes, anthias flutter in the current, a huge Napoleon wrasse pass you by. Bliss! Then you feel something in your ear, nipping at you. You reach up with your hand to find out what it is. A small flash of blue and white stripes passes your mask. Your other ear starts to feel as if something is trying to pierce it. You have just been cleaner-wrassed! Like being 'triggered', being 'cleaner-wrassed' is a well-known phenomenon in the Red Sea, though the cleaners tend to leave smaller bite marks in your fins. These little fish, technically blue streak cleaner wrasse, appear all over the coral reefs of the Red Sea. They feed exclusively on parasites, mucus and injured tissue from other fish, forming cleaning stations on prominent parts of the reef and advertising their trade through a distinctive up and down dance.
IT MAKES YOUR LOCAL CAR-WASH look a bit unimaginative, doesn't it? Cleaner wrasse also have a mimic, a blenny that has developed similar markings and movements. This fish, the cleaner mimic, tricks its victim into waiting to be cleaned by darting around like the real thing. It then uses its advantage of such close proximity to make a meal of a bit of fin or scale from the unsuspecting fish! As well as keeping their fishy friends clean and free of fish fleas and dirt, some cleaner wrasse have also developed a sideline in the Red Sea. At one particular site in Sharm el Sheikh, these little Mrs Mops are giving dental hygienists a run for their money! Approach them slowly, perhaps holding out a hand for them to investigate. Then simply remove your regulator and they will be straight into your mouth to give your gums a good going over. Colgate, watch out, there's a new force in the fight against plaque! To remove these underwater toothbrushes, all you need do is breathe out, your bubbles chasing them away. There is no need to fear that they will become unintentional sushi; they are far too quick and wily to get swallowed. I have had many encounters with two particular cleaner wrasse at a site called Fiddle Garden. The first was the classic 'ear-nipping', followed up on a later dive with a dental-hygiene session. At first I worried that the wrasse might take a wrong turn and swim down my throat, but I soon realised that they knew what they were doing. Later, on a dive with my husband, underwater photographer Adam Butler, both mask and regulator removal were requested, as shown in the pictures. Having my molars molested without my mask was a little disconcerting, but it did make for a great shot! It later crossed my mind that, given their staple diet of parasites and mucus, these fish were hardly paying me a compliment through their interest in my oral hygiene. Regardless, I moved on to make-up removal - the wrasse seemed to like my waterproof mascara. However, this was a bit far for me, so it was mask back on. At least I could then see the little beasts. Now I stick to taking my reg out for some deep teeth-cleaning and parasite removal, ensuring a good laugh for my buddy!