Playing with Critters: Cleaner Shrimp

by B. N. Sullivan

cleaner shrimpAs a rule we don't handle the creatures we encounter in the ocean. Some bite or sting, of course, but even when they don't, it's not a good idea to handle them. In fact, most creatures will try to escape if you pick them up (wouldn't you??).

Many critters are quite fragile, and they can get injured if you handle them. Crustaceans, for example, can lose a limb or break their antennae while trying to get away.

Many kinds of sea creatures -- including fish -- are covered with a thin layer of protective mucus. If you handle them, that protective layer gets disturbed and that can subject them to infection.

Another problem with handling critters is that people forget to put them back exactly where they found them. If you pick up a creature and then put it down somewhere else, it's the critter equivalent to alien abduction!

Most reef creatures have quite a small range. They eat, rest, feed and mate in some little patch and rarely venture far. In most instances, the smaller the creature, the smaller the range. Put some little creatures down just a meter from where you picked them up and they become completely disoriented. Displaced, they don't know where to find food, or where to hide from predators.

Some reef creatures mate for life. You wouldn't want to tear some little guy away from its permanent mate just so you can pet it, would you?

cleaner shrimpFor all these reasons, we usually advise against petting or playing with creatures you find in the ocean. But there is an exception: some creatures seem to like to interact with divers. Well, maybe 'like to' is not precisely correct, but in any case, there are some animals that will approach us.

One such critter is the cleaner shrimp.

Now, these little guys have an important job in nature: they clean other animals. Cleaner shrimp usually occupy a patch of coral or a rocky spot at the edge of a reef. Animals -- mostly fish -- stop by when they need to be cleaned. The shrimp remove parasites, dead scales and skin, and bits of debris from their fish clients. They also serve as the dental hygienists of the reef. It's not at all unusual to see a moray eel, mouth agape, with one or two cleaner shrimps poking around inside, picking out bits from between the eel's teeth.

If you happen to discover a cleaning station inhabited by these shrimp, you may be able to engage their services. Get close, and then be very still. Chances are, the shrimp will come out and give you a once-over.

Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis)In the first two photos on this page, a cleaner shrimp is working diligently on Jerry's glove. If you offer a bare hand, you can expect to have your nails cleaned and your cuticles nipped. It doesn't hurt, though. In fact, it tickles like crazy -- partly from the cleaning action per se, and partly because those long white antennae constantly sweep over the surface of your skin. They are the shrimp's crud detectors!

A number of reef-dwelling shrimp species serve as cleaners at least part-time. The species in the photos on this page, Lysmata amboinensis, are full-time cleaners.

This species is common, and is widely distributed throughout the Indo-Pacific region. We have seen them everywhere from the Red Sea in the west, all the way east to Hawaii. We also have seen a nearly identical species, Lysmata grabhami, in the Caribbean and along the coasts of south Florida.

All of the images on this page are of the same individual cleaner shrimp. I took the photos at a spot known as 'the 110-foot rock' off the coast of Puako, Hawaii. [Click on any of the photos for a larger view.]


  1. Kind of like the equivalent to a drive through car wash for the fish. Nature is so amazing!

    Also a great reminder to leave things as we find them including under the sea too!

  2. A shrimp manicure. Now that is a concept I have never thought of before!

  3. Thanks for this one, Bobbie. I love your nature documentary posts!

  4. Hey Right Bluers!

    Just wanted you and your dive buddy readers to know that we're giving away a free bottle of Suit Juice wet/drysuit lubricant with any purchase from

    Hurry! Supplies are limited.

    Keep diving!


  5. Very cool. I have heard about these little guys, but did not know about their interactions with humans.

  6. @kml - LOL, drive-thru fish cleaning. Yes!

    @Will - You should try it. Great fun!

    @AFM - Thanks, Chris


  7. @NDG - Sounds like a deal.

    @ScienceGuy - Years ago, we saw a dive instructor friend get 'serviced' by cleaner shrimp in an unusual way: he took his regulator out of his mouth, opened wide, and the shrimp went inside and began working on his teeth. That lasted about 2 seconds before he nearly choked! Once we saw that, we decided to offer our hands only.


  8. So interesting. Every time I visit this blog I learn something new. Thanks!

  9. I just love your posts. You give interesting and what I think is important information that most people probably wouldn't think about but should know.

    Having that shrimp clean your nails sounds like quite an interesting experience. If I had a nail shop I think I'd get a few in a tank just for a gimmick. LOL! :-)

  10. A very informative article. "Don't" is one thing, but you've got a great selection of "How comes" here as well. I've learned a lot!

  11. Just let my cleaner shrimp have a go at my hands. Strange experience at first but got used to it and now my nails have never looked better!


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry