>"How so?" I asked.
>"We were on a dive trip on the liveabord Nai'a, and I saw your photograph of Cat Holloway with the shrimp in her mouth hanging in the passageway — you know, the one you took some 15 years ago, if recollections serve me. It's still one of my favorites."
>The thoughtful call brought a rush of dusty memories. "Has it really been 15 years?" I wondered as I hung up the receiver and leaned back in my chair with the photograph dancing in my mind. But my thoughts quickly drifted from the image and settled on the unforgettable string of events that followed.
>It all began sometime prior to my 1998 voyage aboard the Nai'a when Cat, who was the liveaboard's cruise director at the time, learned to entice cleaning shrimp into her mouth. The two-inch crustaceans (in this case white-stripe cleaning shrimp) traditionally make their living feeding on the parasites that besiege reef fishes. To ease their infestations, "client" fish visit cleaning stations at intervals throughout the day. The stations are manned by certain species of shrimp and small fishes that are referred to collectively as cleaners. The cleaners, which tend to be immune to predation because of their invaluable services, regularly venture inside opened mouths where microscopic parasites, primarily larval isopods, congregate. In Cat's case a predive meal of Vegemite and toast was employed to sweeten the deal.
>Cat settled onto her knees in the sand next to a coral outcropping, removed her second stage and leaned forward with her lips drawn back and teeth bared. As her face neared the reef, a shrimp hopped aboard her approaching grin. After momentarily busying itself picking here and there it vanished inside Cat's mouth. When the shrimp reappeared, a gentle puff sent it sailing back toward its roost. Cat looked up and, with a twinkle in her eyes, smiled and gave a sweet little shiver of delight.
>Still harboring an image of a lady with a fish hanging from her lip, I fumbled for an answer. "It wouldn't have been after the cleaner … wow, I have no idea," I admitted. "How's the lady?"
>"Oh, other than having a black, blue and swollen lip for a few days, the injury healed remarkably well," Cat replied. "Fortunately, being a vet, she was accustomed to being bitten by animals."
>Returning the following morning I found the cardinalfish clustered toward the back of the recess away from the cleaners, so I settled in for a wait. Having nothing better to do, I casually slipped my hand toward the shrimp — a mistake. A small grouper, known as a graysby, bolted for my outstretched fingers. I yanked my hand back just in the nick of time and hugged it tightly to my chest. The grouper turned, glared and then swam away, sending up a puff of sand in its wake before slipping inside the recess through a side passage, resting its head on an incline and opening its mouth wide. A nearby shrimp literally galloped across the sand and onto the waiting jaws. No sooner was the shrimp settled than the grouper sent it flying with a shake and swam away.
>The message was loud and clear: This bad boy was, in no uncertain terms, asserting a proprietary claim to the cleaning station. A light bulb went on — graysby, coral trout, territory, bruised lip. I believe the run-in might have some bearing on the curious behavior of Cat's "rascally" trout half a world away.
>© Alert Diver — Summer 2013