Cleaning day

The Red Sea, Ras Muhammad, Egypt

Underwater photo of a giant moray eel being cleaned by a Red Sea cleaner wrasse at Ras Muhammad, Egypt
Cleaning Day
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Touring Egypt 12: Would you believe, it must have been Saturday night? Or something about “once a week, whether you need it or not?” OK, that was a couple of throw-away jokes for Americans there … sorry, I guess.

Everything need to be cleaned — even creatures that live underwater. Sea creatures are swimming in a soup of living things, many of which can easily attach to a passing fish (or turtle, or eel … anything, really) and become a parasite or a nuisance. Periodically most larger animals and fish in the sea need the help of others to clean off the gunk that has attached itself over time. Others (mostly shrimp and small fish) have specialized to provide that cleaning service. By a series of motions, the cleaners tell passing fish that they will eat parasites. The larger fish don’t eat the cleaners. Instead, they periodically visit the cleaners’ “stand” to avail themselves of the service. (By the way: The small life that bothers large sea creatures actually cannot do the same to people: Those parasites are actually very fragile and only live within a very narrow range of acceptable temperatures and chemistries. Our body is not of the sea; we are poison to those small pests.)

Here is another sight that is striking but not very uncommon in the Red Sea, if one pays attention. There are many “giant” moray eels here. They are often spotted swimming freely across the reef. Likewise, the reefs are full of the local cleaner fish and shrimps. (If you are careful and patient, it is possible for a diver to coax a fish or shrimp to “clean” one’s hand.) On several occasions I have seen the large eels in cleaning stations, being worked over by the Red Sea’s indigenous cleaners. Photographing the scene is a bit more challenging: The giant morays are not comfortable being approached, nor is the cleaner. I have scared away one or both almost as many times as I have seen them.

This was taken on a boat dive to “Yolanda Reef,” in Ras Muhammad National Park, Egypt. There is often a strong current at this site. On this particular day the Camel Dive* boat crew calculated well and dropped us perfectly in position to ride the current on a nearly effortless drift between Yolanda and another nearby site, “Shark Reef.” In this situation, a photographer who is paying attention and drifting quietly can ride the current rather than having to swim up to his subject. I saw the eel first, then realized he was stationary because he was being cleaned. As the rest of my group passed by, I exhaled a little to drift closer to the reef and waited for my moment. I took two shots as the current carried me past.

*In the category of “too many times can’t be enough:” As I’ve mentioned previously, when in Sharm el-Sheikh I stay at and dive with the Camel Dive Club and Hotel, a full-service PADI training facility with fabulous and friendly staff, and also excellent accommodations and great dining on premises.

(Above and below were taken within moments of one-another: Canon Powershot G9 in an Ikelite case, with twin Ikelite DS-125 strobes, wired and set to TTL metering. ISO 80, integrated lens at 10.7mm, f/3.5 at 1/100 sec.)

Underwater photo of a giant moray eel being cleaned by a Red Sea cleaner wrasse at Ras Muhammad, Egypt
Don’t forget behind the ears
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