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World Renowned Seahorse Expert To Begin Saba Research

It was summer of 1999 when divemaster Kurt Trennert’s keen eye spotted the first seahorse in many years in Ladder Bay.  Since then, Saba has been host to a veritable seahorse bloom in many of her shallow reefs.

In the summer of 2000, Dr. Heather Hall, a well-known seahorse expert, spent two days diving with Sea Saba.  Her book Seahorses, An Identification guide to the world’s species and their conservation* is our main source of information about this unique creature.

The shy seahorse has been a source of intrigue for centuries.  Although it is actually a fish belonging the genus hippocampus, even its name betrays man’s ancient fascination with the seahorse.  Greek poets wrote of sea gods riding this mythical creature, half horse and half fish. 

Seahorses are considered an incredible “find” by divers around the globe.  They reside in temperate oceans from the southern tip of New Zealand to the northern waters of Nova Scotia.   Their preferred habitat is in coastal areas where sea or eelgrass or soft bottom areas provide an abundant source of small crustaceans, their favorite food.    

Coral seahorse, side viewThe creature’s ornate body style is not without purpose.  The independently moving eyes help locate elusive shrimp and crabs.  Lacking teeth and a stomach, the seahorse consumes vast amounts of live food to compensate for its rapid and inefficient digestive system.  The long tubular snout provides suction for ingesting the crustaceans.  The trademark prehensile tail is used as an anchor and for grasping the partner during mating. The seahorse is capable of making "clicking" sounds by moving two parts of its skull. Although intense "clicking" is noted during courtship, scientists believe color changing is the primary means of communication among seahorses.The ear-like fins below the gills are used for steering and stability with only the dorsal fin used for propulsion.  Thus, the seahorse is a relatively slow mover and must depend on its mastery of disguise to avoid becoming prey.  Divers and predators alike find it difficult to find this fish that has the ability to change color to mimic its surroundings.  It can grow skin filaments to imitate algal fronds.  As if that wasn’t enough, encrusting organisms settle on its skin providing yet more camouflage. 

(© click on "thumbnails" for excellent seahorse photos shot in our waters)

This talent for costume changing has fooled the scientific community with over 120 named species of seahorses “on the books”.  Preliminary research by Dr. Hall and her colleagues suggests that the actual number is actually closer to only 32.  In our Caribbean waters, only two species are found:  the Longsnout Seahorse Hippocampus reidi and Lined Seahorse, Hippocaumpus erectus. 

Pairs of seahorses have been consistently found at Ladder Labyrinth and Torens Point.  Research indicates seahorses mature at six to twelve months.  Seahorses are monogamous with evidence that a pair will mate repeatedly and exclusively eschewing opportunities to interact with non-partners.  The daily greeting rituals between long-term faithful pairs consist of dancing and promenading for a period of five to ten minutes with the pair separating for the remainder of the day.  Seasonal mating periods can last for 9 hours while the female transfers eggs to the male.  It is the male who carries the eggs until the pregnancy is completed.  

Unfortunately, seahorse existence is threatened by coastal development and destruction of habitat.  In some areas of the world, they are harvested as curios and for Traditional Chinese Medicine.  But in Saba, shelter is assured. 

The Saba Marine Park has protected its waters since 1987.  Fishing is prohibited.  Permanent moorings have been established in coral reef zones.  Designated anchoring zones are located in a few sandy areas with current park rules requiring boats to anchor seaward to the established moorings.  This rule protects the sea grass beds in shallow areas that are home to seahorses.  Of course, the same area provides food for other residents including turtles, stingrays and many others.   

So why is the diving community excited about five to seven resident seahorses?  Not only are they a great tourist attraction to find and photograph, seahorses are the flagship species for endangered habitats signaling the healthiness of the ecosystem: the coral reef, mangroves and supporting seabed.  Finding seahorses—and in this case, many seahorses--is a sign of reef prosperity. 

So why are there suddenly more seahorse sightings in Saba?  We can hypothesize that the coastal areas have recovered since a local company ceased mining, processing and exporting sand.  This operation caused heavy silting and increased erosion.  But over the same period, Saba experienced more hurricanes that affected the same coastal area.  This question and others will be addressed by Dr. Hall’s visit to Saba in spring 2001. 

For now, check out the McGill University website (Project Seahorse) to learn more about seahorses and the project’s progress in protecting this unique fish.

*Seahorses, an identification guide to the world’s species and their conservation was co-written by Sara A. Lourie, Amanda CJ Vincent and Heather J. Hall.   The comprehensive guide covers the biology of the animal but also the conservation concerns, an identification guide and of course, plenty of great photos:  ISBN 0-9534693-0-1.  Dr. Heather Hall is slated for a late May 2001 visit to Saba when she will begin her research on Saba seahorses, conduct nighttime presentations and be available to our guests for questions both on the dive boat and at the meetings.

  

special thanks to Michael of the Brigadoon for sharing his photos ©

This page last updated 06/03/04 from Sea Saba's Windwardside office

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