The Elusive Seahorse
Snorkelers on a Mission
By Tammy Peluso
To this day, after ten years of underwater exploring, I still bubble with the exuberance of a six year old at the sight of a seahorse. This probably has something to do with my misadventures with sea monkeys during childhood. Amazingly, I encountered my first seahorse the first time I went snorkeling. It was a tiny one, about an inch high; I found it bouncing across the sand in five feet of water. I cupped it gently in my hands and raced over to show my buddy. When I got her attention, I released it near a patch of seagrass and we marveled at the antics of this bizarre little creature for half an hour. I left the water that day thinking that seahorses must be everywhere! It was six years before I saw another one.
Seahorses, along with pipefish, belong to the family Synathidae. Common features include elongated bodies, protruding bony rings and a skinny tubular snout tipped with a tiny toothless mouth; seahorses feed primarily on plankton and tiny benthic animals. These curious creatures practice unusual mating rituals; the male seahorse fertilizes the eggs, incubates them in his kangaroo-like pouch and gives birth. The females are merely egg donors; aquatic one-night stands. After depositing their eggs through a tiny slit in the male's brood pouch, the female disappears. The male incubates the eggs for one to two weeks, eventually delivering hundreds of tiny babies; a laborious process that can last several hours. After the birthing process is completed, the male leaves his progeny to fend for themselves. Before leaving, he will occasionally gobble up a few of his newly hatched offspring. The surviving seahorses, fully developed and capable, search out a suitable environment.
The odd shape of the seahorse is unmistakable. Its tiny cocked head, long snout and languid body form gives it quirky horse-like features; its corkscrew tail and whimsical winged armor complete the vision, making it look like a creature out of a fairy tale. Fully extended, the largest species can measure up to six inches; the smallest is almost microscopic. Coloring is extremely varied, the flashiest are brilliant yellow and scarlet, most are a mixed bag of pinks, reds and countless variations of stripes, solids and polka dots. Seahorses living in Sargassum often develop fleshy appendages that help them blend in.
Despite their grand design, seahorses are poor swimmers; it can take them more than a minute to cover a foot of ground. Fortunately, they have effective camouflage techniques and excellent maneuverability that enables them to stalk prey and elude predators. The transparent slatted dorsal fin on the seahorse's back is its most powerful means of propulsion; fluttering up to 70 times per second. A pair of pectoral fins behind the seahorse's head help with steering and braking. Because of their inability to move quickly, seahorses live a relatively stationary existence, typically inhabiting regions of the reef where there is little or no current.
Even though seahorses are stationary, territorial and downright large in many cases, they are almost impossible to find without the help of someone who knows where they reside. The trouble is, seahorses are usually where you least expect them, I learned that several years ago during a nighttime seahorse hunt under a pier in The Bahamas. Our boat had just arrived in Grand Turk after a week long live-aboard adventure and the captain mentioned there were 'lots' of seahorses under a nearby pier. Our gear was washed, dried and packed away but, for the seahorses, it was worth it.
Even though we were only going to be snorkeling in seven feet of water, we were required by local law to hire a divemaster to accompany us. Fully knowledgeable of our intentions, he sat nearby and watched, for 40 minutes, while we scoured every inch of every piling looking for seahorses. Just as I was about ready to abort my mission, my light fell on a pile of coral-encrusted fishing line, coiled at the base of a piling. As I looked around I saw there were dozens of similar clusters scattered like tumble weeds across the sandy bottom. Then it hit me; how can the seahorses be on the pilings? They have nothing to hang onto! Within moments we had uncovered one-half dozen rather crusty, drab-colored seahorses hanging on to fishing line, blending in perfectly with their surroundings.
Seahorses exist in oceans around the world but they seem to be encountered with the greatest frequency in The Bahamas and Caribbean. At several destinations, seahorses are in such abundance they have been integrated into the underwater repertoire of attractions. Lined Seahorses (Hippocampus erectus) are the most common. Photos of Bonaire's seahorses have been featured in dozens of ads and articles and have won countless photo contests.The seahorses can dependably be found clutching sponges and coral in the shallow water under the Town Pier. In Dominica, there are seahorses everywhere. As soon as I arrived I asked the divemaster if he could show me a seahorse; he asked me what color.
Seahorses are surprisingly docile and tolerant. They make fantastic photo subjects but often tuck their heads down and turn away, making it difficult to get a head-on, in-the-eyes photo. Both seahorses and pipefish are very territorial and have been known to inhabit the same sponge, gorgonian, Sargassum or seagrass patch for long periods of time. They are hard to find but once you know where they live you can return to see them again and again, as long as you don't disturb them. Seahorses will abandon their homes if they are aggravated excessively. Treat them gently and you can enjoy lasting lifelong memories.