In memory of Denise Tackett

Denise Nielsen Tackett, 67, was a long-time collaborator with Project Seahorse and respected photographer of undersea marine life.  She is credited with discovering one of the world’s smallest seahorses, named Hippocampus denise in her honor.   

Tribute by Sara Lourie

Hippocampus denise . Phonto by Denise Tackett.

Hippocampus denise. Phonto by Denise Tackett.

Last week (December 2015) we said a final farewell to Denise Tackett, in a place where she spent so much time patiently observing pygmy seahorses, in the Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi. 

Denise was first in contact with me when I worked on an identification guide to world’s seahorses (published by Project Seahorse in 1999). She sent me a photograph of a small, smooth, orange seahorse the likes of which I had not seen before. Even though I had a strong hunch that it was a new species I couldn’t confirm it without specimens, and Hippocampus denise had to wait another six years before receiving its official name. 

I saw it first in 1999 in the Lembeh Strait on my second dive with Denise. We were also fortunate to be the first people to witness the birth of another pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus bargibanti – 34 babies born in 15 minutes to a male no bigger than the size of your thumbnail. It was a truly amazing experience, and one that put us into serious decompression time to make sure that we avoided getting the bends from our extended stay at 26m. 

Denise and her husband Larry have logged over 6,000 dives, more than 1,500 of which have been in Lembeh Strait. They met on a dive trip in 1983 and subsequently dived throughout the Pacific searching for sponges for Arizona State University’s biomedical research program. They always knew that Lembeh was a special place. Within the first few months of being there they had found several hundred different species of sponge in an area of only a few square miles. After many years of diving for the university they clocked up all the statutory holidays that they hadn’t taken and discovered they had a full six months owed to them! They put sponges aside and focused on their photography, and Denise on her pygmy seahorse research. 

Denise came to know the pygmy seahorses intimately. She watched, described and photographed their activities, courtship, mating and birth. She and Larry produced a short documentary film about them, and a beautiful book about seahorses and the many other species with whom they share their underwater world (Reef Life, Microcosm, 2002). Denise and Larry were always strong advocates for the protection of the Littlest Seahorse and its habitats, even though their work and health ultimately took them away from full-time diving. 

Sadly in February 2015 Denise lost her long battle with cancer (an ironic end for someone who spent so many years searching for biomedically active compounds that might combat cancer). Her dying wish was to be cremated and her ashes scattered in Lembeh where she felt such a strong connection. I promised Larry that if there was a way for me to join him there I would. We were a small group – Jeremy, Nini, Ray, Danny, Larry and I – who took a dive boat out from Lembeh Resort on December 9 with Denise’s ashes. Ray said a short prayer and shared his belief that Denise was now in a place of peace and beyond pain, and Larry also said a few touching words. It was a powerful and special moment, and we all helped scatter Denise’s ashes on the water at one of her favourite dive sites. We also dropped three small bouquets of flowers into the water. Two drifted to the front of the boat. I dropped in the last one, and it resolutely drifted in the other direction. “Just like Denise,” Larry commented with a smile, “always going off and doing things on her own.” She is much missed, but will live on in our memories and in the little orange seahorse that bears her name. 

Banner photo of Hippocampus denise.  Photo by Denise Tackett