Catalina Island

Dive Dry with Dr. Bill: Take It To The Cleaners By Dr. William Bushing


As an ecologist, I understand that complex ecosystems require a wide range of different roles (referred to as “niches” by us biologists) in order to function smoothly. A simplified ecosystem just doesn’t have the stability that a more complex one offers day-to-day and in the face of changing conditions. Although I’m just an amateur sociologist, I believe the same thing holds true for human communities.

For example, if we only had one hotel chain, one auto mechanic or one plumber we could be in a world of hurt if the corporation owning the hotels closed down or if the plumber or auto mechanic got seriously ill. In the distant past people were more self-sufficient and pioneer families would often perform most of the tasks necessary to run their farms and supply their needs. In today’s world, we need a complex community that provides a wide range of services to its residents, since like me most people are not skilled at a variety of tasks.

Here in Avalon our economy is largely based on one thing… tourism. We need tour bus and boat drivers, ticket agents, hotel clerks, dishwashers, servers, trash collectors, etc. Yes, we even need those managers we sometimes get angry at to make things run smoothly. If we had a more diverse economy, it would get even more complex. Unfortunately our simplified tourism-based economy is also subject to fluctuations due to economic downturns, weather, etc. William Wrigley Jr. knew that and made a number of attempts to diversify things and provide more jobs during the long “off-season” of his day.

Our local marine ecosystem also needs to be diverse, with many different roles played by different species. Unfortunately this winter it has been greatly simplified by the loss of our giant kelp forests and dominance of the invasive Asian seaweed. Perhaps one of the roles I find most intriguing is that of the cleaner. Just as we need maids and trash collectors in our human community, the residents of our waters need critters that can fill similar roles or niches “down under.” Interesting that one of the most commonly seen ones is a Latina… the señorita (Oxyjulis californica). Of course, despite the name, not all of them are female, but I can’t tell the difference between a señorita and a señor, at least of the fishy kind, but I do appreciate the difference in the human variety!. Divers often see a group of bluish-black fish known as blacksmith (Chromis punctipinnis) congregating in mid-water. Often they don’t see the reason for these gatherings, the small (up to 10″), cigar-shaped yellowish wrasse being mobbed by the insistent damsels (blacksmith are in the damsel family with our very own garibaldi).

The persistent blacksmith are soliciting a favor from the lovely señorita, asking it to clean them of parasites, diseased or dead tissue If you look closely in the ball of blacksmith, you may see some that appear to be vertical with their heads down or up. This is the pose they assume to beg the señorita to inspect and clean them. Señorita will also clean other fish including the blacksmith’s relative the garibaldi and the giant kelpfish. I don’t remember ever seeing the garibaldi adopt this pose, but on occasion the giant kelpfish will. Frequently when being cleaned, the kelpfish will open its gill cover allowing the señorita to pick parasites directly off its gills. Ouch! I’ve seen them clean giant sea bass and topsmelt and Dr. Milton Love reports they will also clean bat rays and molas. A lot of “dirty” fish in the sea I guess. Milton refers to the señorita as a dilettante cleaner since they only seem to do so when they are “in the mood.” I have to admit that I’m almost never “in the mood…” for cleaning that is. Often the señorita will get “bored” (pardon the anthropomorphism) and swim away. Their buck teeth make them well-adapted to picking food off seaweed and other surfaces. They will often bite kelp blades to ingest the bryozoa, hydroids and tiny worms encrusted on them. At least they get a little salad with their meat that way. Other munchables include zooplankton, small crustaceans and snails.

Unlike their local wrasse relatives the sheephead and rock wrasse, señorita apparently do not change their gender as they age. Another interesting factoid is that I almost never see them on my night dives. Why? Because like the other wrasses, they go to sleep at night by burying into the sandy bottom. Unlike me, they don’t snuggle with their teddy when doing so… and I’m not talking about a stuffed bear, more like slinky silk. I just wish mine had a lovely señorita in it!

© 2015 Dr. Bill Bushing. For the entire archived set of over 600 “Dive Dry” columns, visit my website