MY FIRST HESITANT THOUGHT WAS: “Is that what I think it is” Doubt and disbelief turned to amazement as I realised that what I was looking at was one of the hardest-to-spot and rarest species in the marine kingdom – the pygmy seahorse.
I was diving in the Raja Ampat in Indonesia five years ago when I had my first experience of seeing one of these creatures. We were diving off Kri Point, near Kri Island, at around 20-25m, when dive guide Otto, beckoned me over to a large pink gorgonian.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. He kept pointing, gesticulating and bending his little finger. I looked at him, bewildered, shrugging my shoulders to indicate that I didn’t understand him.
Patiently, he slowed his movements and pointed to his eyes and then his finger, the signal for me to watch where he was pointing. He slowly moved his finger very near to the seafan.
Looking more closely at what I thought was a piece of debris attached to a branch of the fan, I was amazed to see it turn slowly around and look straight at me!
I was staring into the eyes of a beautiful pink Hippocampus bargibanti pygmy seahorse. I looked at Otto, wide-eyed in amazement. He signalled for me to calm down, keep very still and just watch.
I was fascinated to see that the seahorse had its tail wrapped tightly around one of the branches of the gorgonian. The fish seemed to wave about in the current, shifting from side to side and often turning its back on me.
The tiny seahorse blended perfectly into the colour and texture of the seafan. If I looked away for more than a second, I would lose sight of it and have to search hard to spot it again.
Amid the excitement of my first encounter my air had dropped very low, and we had to return to the surface.
Two days later, we returned to the dive site and descended straight down to the seafan. This time, I had my camera with me.
It had been explained to me that there were unofficial guidelines for photographing pygmy seahorses.
They can easily become stressed, so to minimise this, I should take no more than five shots of any single fish.
Flash should be kept to a minimum, and directed slightly away from the subject. Careful positioning of my camera, to avoid disturbing the environment, was essential.
I DECIDED TO STUDY the seahorse, and take a picture only at the optimal time.
I knew I had about 30 minutes of air, and only a handful of chances to take a shot, so I hovered patiently, watching and waiting for the right moment.
These moments seemed never to come. I would compose the shot, and then, just as I started to depress the shutter, the seahorse would turn its back on me or tip its head down. This interesting and beautiful creature was determined to get the better of me!
Pygmy seahorses are a comparatively recently discovered relative of the common seahorse and, along with pipefish and sea dragons, part of the Syngnathiferm family. They range in length from 10 to 25mm.
To date, nine species have been found – Bargibanti, Coleman, Pontohi, Debelius, Denise, Severn, Satomi, Walea and Minotaur. There are believed to be many more undiscovered species.
Pygmy seahorses were discovered by accident. In 1969, a gorgonian sample was taken to a lab with a Bargibanti hitching a ride. Most species have been discovered only within the past 10 years.
They are found only within the Coral Triangle in the central West Pacific, which takes in waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. They like to live in sheltered areas, generally on sea-fans or soft coral.
Extremely well camouflaged, they change and adapt colour and texture to match their host, which sometimes involves growing long skin appendages, or nodules, on their bodies.
Their prehensile tails are able to grasp, so that they can anchor themselves firmly onto the fans or coral. The tube-like mouth with no teeth is used as a vacuum to suck up small crustaceans and zooplankton.
Pygmies differ from normal seahorses in that they have one gill rather than two. This is located at the back of the head. Their eyes move independently of each other.
Swimming is in an upright position, with tails down. The dorsal fin propels the seahorse forward, and the pectoral fin moves it sideways.
Pygmy seahorses are monogamous, and have long courtship periods when mating. As with all seahorses, it’s the male that becomes pregnant. The female deposits eggs in a pouch in the body of the male, and the male fertilises them and incubates them until they hatch. The gestation period is between 10 days and four weeks.
The seahorses give birth to live young, which are totally independent from that moment on. Most pygmy seahorses give birth to around 12 babies at a time, though the highest number recorded was 34!
Pygmy seahorses are generally found in pairs or groups in depths from 3-30m. Bargibanti and Denise are found on sea-fans, whereas Severn, Pontohi and Satomi are found on substrate on the reef, hydroids or even halimeda algae. Walea and Debelius are most likely to be seen on soft coral.
If you’re searching for pygmy seahorses, examine these habitats very carefully. A magnifying glass can be invaluable (a guide even better).
Sadly, all seahorse species numbers are diminishing worldwide due to human damage and the trade in dried seahorse for traditional Asian medicine, where it is thought to have powerful aphrodisiac properties. They are also collected for sale to aquarists.
At the moment seahorses are not considered endangered, but they are flagged as “threatened” or “data deficient” on many conservation lists.
IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH to spot a pygmy seahorse, you can help with their conservation by being very careful around them. Keep finning to a minimum. Be careful of your fin position, and where your exhaled bubbles go. These tiny creatures can be very easily dislodged, and their habitat damaged.
Limit the use of torches and strobes. Limit the number of images you take on your camera, no matter how tempting. Do not move, harass or disturb the subjects and, if taking photographs, be careful of your camera’s position.
My quest for pygmy seahorses has, over the past five years, taken me to Raja Ampat, more westerly parts of Indonesia and the Philippines. I have been lucky enough to see examples of five of the nine species.
I defy even the most hardened tekkie, shark addict or wreck diver not to be captivated at their first sighting of a pygmy seahorse. Every encounter with one of these small wonders of the underwater world touches my heart.