Geographical variation in the outcome of interspecific interactions has a range of proximate ecological causes. For instance, cleaning interactions between coral reef fishes can result in benefits for both the cleaner and its clients. However, because both parties can cheat and because the rewards of cheating may depend on the local abundance of ectoparasites on clients, the interaction might range from exploitative to mutualistic. In a comparative analysis of behavioural measures of the association between the cleaner fish Labroides dimidiatus and all its client species, we compared cleaning interactions between two sites on the Great Barrier Reef that differ with respect to mean ectoparasite abundance. At Heron Island, where client fish consistently harbour fewer ectoparasites, client species that tended to pose for cleaners were more likely to receive feeding bites by cleaners than client species that did not pose for cleaners. This was not the case at Lizard Island, where ectoparasites are significantly more abundant. Client fish generally spent more time posing for cleaners at Lizard Island than their conspecifics at Heron Island. However, fish at Heron Island were inspected longer on average by cleaners than conspecifics at Lizard Island, and they incurred more bites and swipes at their sides per unit time from cleaners. These and other differences between the two sites suggest that the local availability of ectoparasites as a food source for cleaners may determine whether clients will seek cleaning, and whether cleaners will feed on parasites or attempt to feed on client mucus. The results suggest that cleaning symbiosis is a mosaic of different outcomes driven by geographical differences in the benefits for both participants.