Cleaning Station

The Pacific: Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Two enormous green sea turtles hover over a coral head to be cleaned by local tropical fish, off Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.
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This is probably my favorite underwater photo, so let’s get it out of the way. I would say it isn’t my best, but it is one of my first digital underwater shots and is still among my favorites.

During a visit to Hawaii, Nancy took me on a sailboat cruise with a guided snorkeling expedition. This was the cruise destination: A “secret” turtle cleaning station not far off one of the many beaches around the southern side of Oahu, to the west of Pearl Harbor and Honolulu. (However, “secret” it may be, I’m guessing the presence of a mooring buoy nearby was not entirely coincidental….)

“Cleaning stations” are seemingly arbitrary spots along a reef or sea-bottom where the colorful reef fish congregate and wait for turtles. The turtles come to have their shells cleaned and the fish get an easy meal of parasites, small hitchhikers, and algae. This particular spot was above a large coral head, standing slightly above the surrounding bottom and reef.

We arrived mid-morning and did not have to wait long for the turtles to arrive. Soon there were as many as five nearby, jockeying for position and checking out the odd-looking human snorkelers. Our group was there for nearly an hour, swimming with the turtles but always trying to stay out of their way. (“Honu,” the green sea turtle, is protected and there is a hefty fine for touching or disturbing them.) These two enormous green sea turtles were probably the oldest and largest we saw, each around 5 feet long. They orbited at the cleaning station for quite a long time, as smaller turtles waited nearby for their turns.

(Olympus 5060WZ in Olympus underwater case, 12.8mm focal length, f/4.8, ISO 80, using natural light.)