We tested the importance of ectoparasites as the proximate cause of cleaning interactions by comparing the activity of Caribbean cleaning gobies (Elacatinus evelynae) and of their clients during three daily periods (early morning, midday, and late afternoon) in which ectoparasite availability varied naturally. Emergence from the benthos of gnathiid isopod larvae, the main target of cleaning goby predation, was higher at night, when cleaners were inactive, than during the day. As a result, overall ectoparasite loads on client fish tended to be higher in the morning. Inspection bouts by cleaning gobies were longest in the morning, but also at midday when ectoparasite availability on clients was lower. Client fish were observed at cleaning stations most often in the afternoon, when they harboured few ectoparasites, but they were more likely to adopt incitation poses, which increase the likelihood of being cleaned, in the morning than later in the day. Most cleaner and client behaviours therefore did not change predictably in response to natural diurnal variation in ectoparasite availability. Our study suggests that the ultimate and proximate causes of cleaning behaviour need not necessarily coincide.