Coral Janitors

Ever come across a large coral head, day or night (more relevant at night) and see hundreds of beady shining little eyes staring at you? Or perhaps you move in closer to a cave or the underside of a coral head to notice two pairs of white whiskers protruding out from the gloom? Cleaner shrimp are the culprits.

A gang of Stenopus hispidus, or Banded Cleaner Shrimp. These reef residents usually hang around under coral heads, in small caves and crevices waiting for what almost always seems to be a Moray Eel to inhabit the space. They then proceed to give the Moray a good cleaning so it’s nice and free of any parasites or dead skin. Some dare to venture into the mouth of the moray or the gill slits, but they have nothing to fear as the Moray seems to enjoy a good bit of dentistry from these carapaced critters.
If they’re not sitting just inside of a cave on the sandy bed, Banded Cleaner Shrimp usually spend their time hanging upside down, whiskers outstretched so as to feel and movement in the water around them. As you can see just below the Shrimp is the belly of a large Moray, curled up in a crevice being pampered and prodded and pinched by not only the Banded Cleaner, but by other smaller species of shrimp.

Cleaner Shrimp can be great fun to shoot especially using macro lenses, which you’ll see below. They have incredibly intricate bodies, shapes, sizes and colours. Mostly all possess five pairs of legs, two large clawed arms and two or more smaller ones, a fanned tail used for balance and propulsion to escape a tight situation, two or more pairs of antenna, and a rostrum, a sort of toothed battering ram-looking protrusion from the fore of the main carapace. Imagine a unicorn, but with ten legs and pincers, and you’ve got yourself a cleaner shrimp.

Taken during the night, clasping to the spines of a Diadema setosum or Needle-spined Urchin, sits a Stegopontona commensalis. This little cleaner shrimp grows up to 3cm and lives within the protection of their spiny hosts.
Living in pairs on the surfaces of Carpet Anemones like this, is Periclimenes  brevicarpalis, the Glass Anemone Shrimp. Living in pairs of one large female and a smaller male, these shrimp live symbiotically with anemones and have even been found hitching rides with jellyfish.

In the limited experience I have photographing these little guys, I’ve noticed that they tend to be very skittish and can jet away with a powerful thrust from their tails quite quickly at the first sign of sudden movement, which is why zooming in works very well, combined with a steady hand. Alternatively, using a macro lens and moving in closer very VERY slowly produces great shots too. Buoyancy once again is key so as not to disturb these fragile, amazingly beautiful little creatures, that add so much vibrancy, apparent personality and uniqueness to the underwater world we love so much.


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