Highlights from a field season in Thailand

By Lindsay Aylesworth

In our latest Field Notes blog, Project Seahorse PhD student Lindsay Aylesworth reflects on her recent work in Thailand. 

Studying dried seahorse specimens caught by Thai fishers.  Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Studying dried seahorse specimens caught by Thai fishers. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

1) First Day of Fisher Interviews & Port Sampling

Back in our first year of research (2013), we only found eight individual seahorses after three months of scuba diving. This time around, on our first day of fisher interviews and port sampling, one boat shared with us his catch of 24 seahorses! It was fascinating to see so many seahorses at once, and several species we had yet to see in our diving research!

2) Research Assistant Topsi

My research assistant Topsi, nicknamed Top, is literally the top, one the best research assistants I’ve ever had. She is a dive instructor and former Greenpeace activist who is always smiling. She was my research assistant for both research seasons, 2013 and 2014, and my work would not have been as successful without her.

Diving with hedgehog seahorses.  Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Diving with hedgehog seahorses. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

3) Training Workshop at the Department of Fisheries

At the end of April, I and another colleague from Project Seahorse did a half-day training workshop with our research collaborator the Department of Fisheries (DoF). I was nervous that not many staff members would be at the workshop. Much to my surprise it turned out to be a huge success.
There were 26 participants representing over 12 provincial offices. Everyone was enthusiastic about the training, and asked questions during the practice identification session. The workshop content was most applicable to divers, but several staff approached us to discuss how the training might apply to their DoF port sampling procedures. It was a great workshop, not only supporting our collaboration here in Thailand, but also providing an important opportunity for capacity building with DoF staff!

4) Spotting twenty-two seahorses at Pattaya

Near Koh Pai Island, off Bangkok’s popular tourist beach Pattaya, we found 22 seahorses in a single day. All were hedgehog seahorses (Hippocampus spinosissimus), and almost all were holding onto pencil urchins like the one in this photo. Most of the seahorses we found were juveniles and we found as many as four on one urchin alone! A very exciting way to start our underwater work in the Gulf of Thailand!

Lindsay (left) and her research assistant, Top (right).  Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Lindsay (left) and her research assistant, Top (right). Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

5) Thailand Dive Expo

The Thailand Dive Expo (TDEX) is the largest Dive Expo in Thailand, held in Bangkok each year to promote Thailand’s travel and dive industries. The TDEX organizers chose this year’s theme to be “Super Seahorse,” and in doing so hosted a seahorse photo contest and invited me to speak as an expert about seahorse research in Thailand.
One of the most exciting parts of the Thailand Dive Expo was that, immediately upon walking in, I saw our HUGE seahorse ID guides! Produced by Project Seahorse and Shedd Aquarium, these guides are used by divers to identify local seahorse species. My assistant Top had translated them into Thai and shared them with the TDEX organizers, and now here they were, front and center, right at registration desk!

With the family of Bang Lee at Koh Pu.  Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

With the family of Bang Lee at Koh Pu. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

6) One of the Family with Bang Lee at Koh Pu

Top and I were welcomed into the family of a Muslim community leader on Koh Pu Island, in Krabi province, while doing research there on seahorses. Bang Lee is a conservation-minded community leader and in charge of the small-scale fishers group. He is actively involved in the community and provincial governments working to ensure the sustainability and health of the island, its habitats and people.
We stayed at his father’s house, which doubles as the village coffee shop. Located by the pier, it has a huge wraparound porch where community members gather to discuss the day’s events. His wife and daughter-in-law cooked delicious food – including pasta with squid ink sauce.
We found seahorses here in 2013 and 2014 in the seagrass beds around the island. The community is now using our seahorse information to support their efforts to protect the seagrass beds from the proposed coal power plant.

Afternoon tea with the fishers of Khuraburi.  Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Afternoon tea with the fishers of Khuraburi. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

7) Afternoon Tea Parties with Fishers in Khuraburi

We received a festive welcome from the crab fishers of Khuraburi. They were excited to participate in our seahorse research and our host organized three days of afternoon tea parties where we could interview fishers, chat about seahorses, and answer their questions about life in North America.
One interesting fact we learned: a crab fisher in this village can make $10,000 baht (US $300) for one day of fishing in the monsoon season, whereas during the dry season they make only $1000 baht (US $30) per day. Although it’s more dangerous to fish in the monsoon due to strong winds and big waves, most of the fishers think it’s worth the effort.

8) Assistant Top Takes Charge in Ao Por

At one of our research sites in northern Phuket, Top moved from research assistant to researcher in charge while I traveled to Bangkok to take part in a training workshop. She oversaw an assistant to help collect data; she managed the budget, organized logistics, and best of all – she and her assistant found four tiger tail seahorses (H. comes) at that site! The icing on the cake was that she saw two of them breeding, a rare sight to observe in the wild. I was very proud that she had the training, skills and confidence to oversee research at this site while I was away. 

An interview with  Phuket Today. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

An interview with Phuket Today. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

9) Interview with Phuket Today

My friend Isaac hosts a weekly magazine TV show called Phuket Today, and in April 2014 he did a segment on my seahorse research in Thailand. It’s about 12 minutes long, and we filmed it at the Phuket Aquarium. Phuket Today features the lively and diverse lifestyles of Phuket.
Featuring current news on local events, things to see, places to go and profiles of prominent island residents, Phuket Today informs and introduces viewers to the Pearl of the Andaman Coast, and reaches more than 4,000 hotel rooms around the island. 

10) iSeahorse Training Workshop in Pattay

I joined two Project Seahorse team members - Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and Chai Apale from the Philippines – to host an iSeahorse training workshop for a group of enthusiastic divers in Pattaya.
As Project Seahorse colleagues and supporters will know, iSeahorse is an online database where people can report seahorse sightings. These data ultimately advance seahorse science and are translated into action in the form of increased protections for seahorse populations under threat. As part of this project, we’ve developed a training program for divers to teach them how to identify and search for seahorses, with the intended goal that divers will monitor their local seahorse populations over time.
Seafari and Dive Tribe became the first dive shops in Thailand to adopt an iSeahorse monitoring site. In April, three of us from Project Seahorse worked with these dive shops to host a training workshop, and increase the number of divers available for monitoring in the area. We trained 20 divers ranging from beginner to instructor level, both Thai and foreigners, in an awesome day of diving. One group found 14 seahorses in one dive! A big success for seahorses and a great way to kick off the iSeahorse monitoring program in Thailand.