August 21, 2022
It’s been a while since I told a story about this kind of fish. It’s called a hinalea, a cleaner wrasse – in fact, a Hawaiian cleaner wrasse – and they’re small fish that live along the reefs in somewhat deeper water.
As small fish, you’d expect they’d be hunted by larger fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And they are, in fact, hunted – but not as food. Despite the fact that we’re so much bigger than a mosquito, they still come and land on us and try to eat a little bit of us, right? Similar things happen to fish, and unlike mosquitoes, a lot of these pesky creatures don’t let go. After a while, a fish can have quite a lot of unwelcome passengers, all of them trying to take a nibble on them. It’s not fun.
Cleaner wrasse eat those tiny pesky irritating creatures, gently nibbling them away from the skin and scales of the larger fish. They set up spots along the reef which people call “cleaning stations,” and where the larger fish will gather for a cleaner wrasse or three to remove those little pests. It’s a nice arrangement. The large fish go away greatly relieved, and the hinalea get, well, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
One particular school of hinalea had one of the busiest cleaning stations on the reef. The school leaders – and I know you want me to call them teachers, but a wrasse school isn’t a school, it’s a business, so the best term for school leaders is bosses – the school leaders had announced that they needed all the hinalea there at the cleaning station. No cleaning fish anywhere else.
They couldn’t clean all the time, of course. Nobody can eat all the time, despite the things you’ll sometimes hear about human teenagers. The cleaner wrasse would take a break for a while, but the only place they were allowed to clean was at the station.
One hinalea was on his break, lazily swimming along the reef and not much worried about anything, when a larger fish came along. It was an ‘uhu, a parrotfish, and it was in terrible shape. It had picked up so many pesky creatures that it was really painful. She was wandering aimlessly along the reef, unable to figure out which way she was going and where she could find a cleaning station. She spotted the lone hinalea with its bright blue and yellow and purple scales, and settled next to him.
She didn’t need to say anything. She needed help. The hinalea went to work. All alone outside the cleaning station and as covered as she was, this would take some time.
Another hinalea, one of the bosses on break, wandered over and stopped, shocked to see what he was doing. “This isn’t the cleaning station!” he said. “Stop that now!”
Our hinalea said nothing – his mouth was full. In fury, the other hinalea swam at him and chased him away from the ‘uhu, chased him all the way back to the cleaning station.
“This fish cleaned away from the cleaning station,” announced the boss. “What shall we do with him?”
The other bosses gathered menacingly. This didn’t look good at all. But just then the ‘uhu appeared and swam to the little wrasse in the center of the angry fish. “Thank you so much,” she said.
She turned to the bosses and said, “Do you know what this little one did? I had so many pests on me that I couldn’t find the cleaning station. He picked off enough of them that I could find you. I can’t tell you what would have happened if he hadn’t. I’m pretty sure you would have lost a customer.”
She looked at the hinalea again and said, “As good a job as you did, you got interrupted. Do you suppose you could finish?” And so he did.
Sometimes bosses in the world are foolish, and sometimes they are wise. This group of hinalea bosses chose wisdom that day. It remained important that everyone concentrate on the cleaning station – a lot of fish waited there – but if a hinalea on break could help get a fish to the station? That was good, and right, and important, too.
by Eric Anderson
Watch the Recorded Story
The story above was told live from memory of this text.
Photo of two hinalea by Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR – http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/reef0662.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2111807.