By Eric Riesch
The possibility of a first encounter with an animal drives most of us underwater photographers to never want to skip a dive. But sometimes, a common occurrence on the reef can be just as challenging and rewarding.
One of my favorite things to see on the reef is a fish cleaning station. As many times as I have seen them, the temptation to stop and spend the better part of my dive observing the activity is irresistible.
In the Caribbean, the Creole Wrasse is easy to find as it cruises about about looking for perspective cleaners. On some reefs you can almost set your watch by when they will appear, gathering in large schools in the late afternoon. A cleaning station is not only a great opportunity to get an action shot of fish behavior, but also an excellent chance for a nice portrait of one of the individual species who drops by for a scrub.
Description of Creole Wrasse
Wrasse are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning after the juvenille phase they become initial phase females, then as they age change sex into terminal phase males. The initial phase of the fish is deep purple to lavender. The terminal phase is the same with highlights of yellow and purple on the back of the body, the rear dorsal and anal fin.
The snout is dark purple to almost black, while the mouth and jaw are white to translucent. They extend their jaws outward when being cleaned. The Creole Wrasse is four to seven inches with a maximum length of one foot. The fish are generally found at a depth between 30 and 80 feet.
Creole Wrasse Behavior
The species’ late afternoon visit to the reef is like a group of sailors coming into port. They come to get a good cleaning, pick up some food and maybe hook up for a romantic rendezvous. As the large school (sometimes in the hundreds) swims parallel to the reef line, several individuals will break off looking for cleaning stations. Brown Chromis can be found at these same locations attempting to attract cleaners.
The stations are mounds of brain, star and plate corals often composed of a few Pederson Cleaner Shrimp, Cleaning Gobies and juvenile Spanish Hogfish. The Creole Wrasse can be frequently seen maneuvering themselves in front of each other to gain the attention of the cleaners.
Photo Tips for Creole Wrasse Cleaning Station
Before taking the first shot, you will need to first observe a cleaning station from a distance and slowly approach so as to not startle the fish-- when disturbed, the wrasse will jolt away and may not quickly return.
Maintain perfect buoyancy:
Get on the same level or below the fish to photograph. Control your breathing to slowly rise or descend as necessary without much movement. Erratic fin kicks or even a quick adjustment to a strobe arm can scare the subjects away and ruin your opportunity. Make sure to get your camera settings and strobe adjustments as close to perfect before the approach.
Focus on the cleaners instead of the wrasse:
The wrasse will swim around and come and go, but this is the home of the cleaners so focus on them. Follow the various cleaners through your viewfinder as they go up and down and dart toward open mouths. Spanish Hogfish are the most colorful and also the most active cleaners so keeping up with them is quite a skill.
Get close, then closer:
Gradually close in on the cleaning station. When the cleaners begin to do their work, inch closer. As the coral mound activity increases, the fish will become more comfortable having a photographer spying on them. Now is your chance to get even closer.
Open the aperture and try shooting at a lower strobe power:
A combination of a small aperture and faster shutter speed will help darken out the background, but you may not want a black background! Opening the aperture and turning down the strobe power will produce nice blues in the image and blur out the background, drawing more attention to the subject.
More patience = better shots:
Be patient and wait for the right opportunity to get the cleaning shot you want. Visit many different cleaning stations and take your time.
Author Bio –
Eric Riesch is the photo editor at New World Publications on their series of marine life identification books. For more information on the Creole Wrasse see page 215 of Reef Fish Identification – Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas and page 335 of Reef Fish Behavior – Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, both by Humann and DeLoach.
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