Surreal. Magical. Odd. Those three words immediately jumped to mind when I saw my very first seahorse in the wild.
I have been working for Project Seahorse for ten years as a Research Biologist, but my work has been mainly office-based in Vancouver. This May I had the wonderful opportunity to work with my director, Dr Amanda Vincent, while she was in Southern France on sabbatical and one of the first things we did was dive for seahorses.
Patrick Louisy (founder and director of Peau Bleue – a marine citizen science group with a particular focus on seahorses) graciously arranged a dive in the Étang de Thau for Amanda and me, along with two researchers from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. The Étang de Thau is one of the largest of a string of lagoons that stretch along the French coast from the Rhône River to the Spanish border and is home to many seahorses.
I hadn’t been scuba diving in 16 years, so I was a little rusty – to say the least. Lucky for me our guide, Pascal Cottinet - who is intimately familiar with the seahorse population in the Étang du Thau - is also a master instructor. He often takes first-time divers on what he calls a “baptismal” dive, so he literally held my hand (and had his other hand on my tank) most of the time. The fact that these seahorses are found in very shallow water (<5m and often only 1-2 m) makes for tricky buoyancy so I was extremely grateful for Pascal’s expert help.
After swimming slowly for about 15 minutes through very murky water (over the odd tire, sunken boat and cables) we came to a rocky outcrop, covered in sediment and multiple tube anemones. We spent some time exploring this area and after a while Pascal pointed to a little bit of brown next to one of the anemones. At first, I didn’t see anything and then suddenly there she was! Just like magic… a gorgeous long-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) no bigger than my hand, clinging with her tail to a tube anemone. So beautiful, so peaceful. As we watched her she let go of her holdfast and swam away, ever so slowly. Her little dorsal fin was swirling like crazy, but she was hardly moving.
Watching her swim made me smile. Such an odd little creature… the head of a horse, the tail of a monkey, the armour of a knight, and the best part – the males get pregnant. It’s like someone played “pass-the-drawing” and came up with this fantastical, amazing creature. During the hour-long dive we saw five seahorses in total – all H. guttulatus (although the short-snouted seahorses, H. hippocampus, do live in the Étang du Thau as well) - each one as magical as the next.
While my years at Project Seahorse mean that I surely know more about seahorses than most people on the planet, until now seahorse conservation had been mainly an intellectual, academic exercise for me. My passion has always been about the bigger picture - conserving and sustainably managing ecosystems. Now, I’m also in love with the little critters. Now, saving seahorses is personal.
More information on Hippocampus guttulatus: