Interview with Dr. Nick Hill, expedition scientist

By Tyler Stiem

Dr. Nick Hill has spent many years working on some of the most beautiful and some of the most degraded coral reefs in the world. Having started his professional life as an ecologist, Nick became increasingly interested in the socioeconomic dimensions of conservation. As a researcher with Project Seahorse, he investigated the livelihoods of people on Danajon Bank. 

Nick now works with the Zoological Society of London, one of Project Seahorse’s key partners, where he manages one of the “good news” projects for Danajon Bank. Net-Works, as the pilot is known, is helping to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic waste by recycling discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles. 

Nick is the lead field scientist on the expedition to Danajon Bank. 

Nick, why do we need to protect coral reefs?

For all the talk in the media about how coral reefs are being destroyed all over the world, what’s sometimes lost is just how incredibly valuable they are. They’re not just beautiful — globally, coral reefs provide US $30 billion every year in coastline protection, food, tourism and other livelihoods. Hundreds of millions of people depend on reefs and other coastal marine ecosystems for their survival!

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, at least 30% of reefs and 40% of other vital coastal habitats have been degraded or destroyed worldwide. In the Caribbean, for example, reef coverage has shrunk from 50% to 5% since the 1960s. The numbers are similar for the Indo-Pacific and other regions. 

Why Danajon Bank?

Simply put, Danajon Bank captures the global story of coral reefs. It’s thought to be a cradle of biodiversity for the Pacific Ocean, meaning that many species may first have evolved here. It’s also economically important. Many, many people depend on it for their survival, so it faces many of the pressures reefs all over the world face. Overfishing, population pressure, destructive fishing practices like blasting, where they use dynamite to catch the fish, and pollution, to list a few examples. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Danajon Bank is one of the most threatened coral reefs in the world. Decades of overfishing and destructive fishing practices have taken their toll. If we don’t scale up protections soon, it really could be too late to save the reef. The challenge, here and all over the world, is striking the balance between human need and ecological protection. 

What is needed to protect Danajon Bank?

In terms of conservation, we need to increase legal protections for Danajon Bank — a marine reserve designation for the entire ecosystem being the goal. 

There are scores of small marine reserves all over the Bank, but a reserve-by-reserve approach offers a limited amount of protection, and depends entirely on the vigilance of the communities that run the reserves. If the whole reef were designated by law as a marine reserve, it would be easier to protect against large-scale exploitation while continuing to regulate local, small-scale fishing.

Can you talk about Project Seahorse’s work in the region?

Project Seahorse has a long history in Danajon Bank. We’ve been doing research and conservation work here for nearly twenty years. We’ve worked closely with local communities to establish 35 marine reserves. Over the years we’ve seen badly overfished areas of the reef slowly recover, which is heartening. Even more heartening is the positive perceptions within local communities and the social capital that has been built through these marine reserves.

Our conservation work is based on robust biological and socioeconomic research. For as long as we’ve been working in Danajon Bank, we’ve been sending our scientists here to study everything from seahorse biology to the impact of seaweed farming, to the effectiveness of marine reserves. Our cutting-edge research informs conservation work in the Philippines and all over the world.

ZSL is working closely with Interface, a company that specializes in sustainable carpet products, on an exciting pilot project that will turn discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles, providing local fishers with income in return. We hope to make some exciting announcments about this project very soon.  

What are your hopes for the expedition? How do you think Expedition: Danajon Bank can make a difference to this threatened reef?

I hope we get some incredible images! 

The problem is that, in spite of its ecological and economic importance, Danajon Bank is barely known within the Philippines, let alone around the world. So, for starters, we need to change that. We need to get the word out. This is the purpose of Expedition: Danajon Bank — to bring some badly needed local, national, and international attention to this badly threatened ecosystem.  

Legal protections are only one part of the equation. We also need to change hearts and minds. There are scores of local communities that are totally committed to protecting the reef, just as there are others that continue to fish here in unsustainable ways. The better people understand the threats and the ecological and economic importance of the reef, the more likely they are to do their part to conserve it.  

I hope, too, that by bringing the story of Danajon Bank to the rest of the Philippines and to the world, we can inspire similar change elsewhere.

Meet Claudio Contreras Koob, expedition photographer

By Tyler Stiem

California sea lion swimming in a kelp forest.

California sea lion swimming in a kelp forest.

For the second in our series of Expedition: Danajon Bank photographer profiles, we spoke to Claudio Contreras Koob, a Mexico City-based photographer and naturalist. 

Claudio studied biology in the National Autonomous University of Mexico but decided to work as a nature photographer instead. He has spent the last 23 years travelling and documenting nature and wildlife in Mexico. During that time he has become ever more involved in conservation-related projects both in his home country and abroad. He joined iLCP in 2009 were he is currently an associate fellow. Also works as a picture editor for conservation and nature-related books.

Claudio, what made you decide to join Expedition: Danajon Bank? 

Close-up of an octopus.

Close-up of an octopus.

As a teenager I became involved with the science faculty diving group in my university. Part of our duties were to gather scientific data in the field that in time translated into the scientific information used to establish marine protected areas we now have in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. So I do understand the power of this team effort and more recently I have been able to see the power that photography has to advance important conservation causes like the Danajon Bank. It’s a privilege to be a part of this effort with Project Seahorse and iLCP.

What are some of the challenges of nature photography?

Salt and humidity kills the electronics of the equipment, and bugs and other little critters make it hard sometimes to maintain sanity… but sadly in more recent times the hardest thing to overcome is the fear of human violence we are experiencing in Mexico.

Military macaws in flight. Tehuacan, Mexico.

Military macaws in flight. Tehuacan, Mexico.

Tell us the story of getting one of your favourite images.

Well, the photo of the military macaws made some time ago is still probably my most well-known image. It was a runner-up in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Back then this place [Tehuacan Valley, Mexico] was completely unknown and macaws had just started to be monitored by biologists. Although inside a Natural Protected Area, there was a risk that these creatures could be lost to pet traders. I was sent there to document them and our work aimed to promote awareness and protection to the site. 

Standing at the edge of the cliff as macaws passed flying by with their raucous voices was an unforgettable moment, I’ve never been back to that canyon but as far as I know, the nearby community has taken pride of their macaws and have established ecotourism visits to view the macaws.

How have you seen your past work make a difference to conservation? 

Sacred Headwaters, Northern British Columbia.

Sacred Headwaters, Northern British Columbia.

I participated in the iLCP’s Sacred Headwaters RAVE expedition in northern British Columbia, Canada. It’s a sacred place to many First Nations people. It is also the region were three undammed salmon-bearing rivers are born.

Wade Davis made a book with the images we were able to obtain and handed a copy to all the members of the Canadian Parliament. It was just one more step in the hard struggle that local people and NGOs  are making to protect that prisitine region they call home. 

What are you most looking forward to about the expedition?

I sincerely hope that as a team we will be able to produce a portfolio strong enough to convince the Filipino government of the need to increase protections for Danajon Bank.

To see more of Claudio's photos, visit

Talking seadragons with Dr. Keith Martin-Smith

By Tyler Stiem

As part of our "Year of the Water Dragon" feature, I sat down with Dr. Keith Martin-Smith, a former research fellow and honorary research associate with Project Seahorse, to talk about his work on the beautiful and elusive seadragon. His scholarly articles and photographs have been published in Oryx, Fish Biology, and on BBC Nature, among other places. See also our gallery of seadragon imagesfun facts page, and a recent scholarly article

A weedy seadragon feeding.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A weedy seadragon feeding. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

First of all, what makes seadragons unique?

Seadragons are arguably the most charismatic members of the seahorse family, primarily because of their outrageous colour patterns in the weedy seadragon and their amazing camouflage for the leafy seadragon. They have extremely brightly coloured eggs that they carry underneath the tail and which gradually become covered in algae over the course of their development. 

Weedy seadragons gather in large groups of 20 or more individuals to breed, akin to ‘lekking’ behaviour in some land animals. They also have a fascinating ‘mirroring’ behaviour during courtship where the male and female hold their bodies in identical postures but in mirror image of each other. I have also occasionally seen female-female pairs performing the same display. Whether this is competitive behaviour or mistaken identity I’m not sure!

What is the connection between seahorses and seadragons?

Seahorses and seadragons are all in the same family of fishes, the Syngnathidae, and share a number of common features such as the long, tubular snout, reduced fins, male pregnancy and hard, external body plates. They live in similar, shallow coastal habitats and are similar ecologically, feeding on small crustaceans and with restricted home range.

How many species of seadragon are there and what differentiates them? 

There are two species of true seadragon – the weedy or common seadragon, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus, and the leafy seadragon, Phycodurus eques. The weedy seadragon has a complex pattern of purple stripes on the ‘neck’ region and hundreds of yellow spots on the side of the abdomen, the head, the snout and the tail while the leafy seadragon is mostly brown and green with white stripes on the abdomen when living in shallow water or reddish in deeper water. The leafy has many frondose appendages while the leafy has simpler appendages. A third species, the ribboned pipefish, Haliichthys taeniophorus, is sometimes called the ribboned seadragon or tropical seadragon. Confusingly, the pipehorses, Solegnathus spp., are known as hai long or sea dragons in traditional Chinese medicine.

Click the image to watch weedy seadragons disappear into their habitat. Video: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

Click the image to watch weedy seadragons disappear into their habitat. Video: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

How did you come to study these animals?

I’ve been working with seadragons since 2001 at sites in southern Tasmania. Initially, with some students, we developed techniques for tagging seadragons with visible implant fluorescent elastomer (VIFE), a coloured substance injected under the skin in a variety of body locations to uniquely identify individuals. We also used surface-towed GPS units in waterproof housings to establish the home range of individuals. Then, in 2004-05, I collaborated with Jaime Sanchez-Camara, a seadragon researcher from Spain who had been working on weedy seadragons around Sydney.

We used our combined data to show that seadragons in colder waters grow more slowly, breed later in the year and live longer than individuals in warmer waters. In 2009, on a recreational dive, I noticed that one of the seadragons that I’d seen still had VIFE tags from 2004. This re-stimulated my interest in seadragons and I began a study to see if we could use the spot patterns on the abdomen to uniquely identify individuals — something that I have since confirmed over a period of three years.

In fact, I’m still regularly seeing the first individuals that I photographed and I can identify all of the seadragons at my regular dive sites. Some of these individuals still have their VIFE tags from 2004-05 in 2012, seven or eight years later, which suggests that they can live a long time. My data predicts that they can live more than 12 years in the wild. I’ve also found that the males carry two broods a year here in Tasmania and all of them start the first pregnancy at the same time.

A pair of male seadragons. Eggs are visible on their brood patch on their tails.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A pair of male seadragons. Eggs are visible on their brood patch on their tails. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

Where are they found, geographically, and in what kinds of habitats?

Leafy seadragons have a very restricted distribution, only found on the southern coast of Australia in the states of Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria while the weedy seadragon has a wider distribution extending from Perth in Western Australia to Sydney in New South Wales and around Tasmania. They both live in similar habitats - namely shallow, algae-covered rocky reefs down to perhaps 30 m.

What threats do they face and what is their IUCN Red List status? 

The major threat to both species of seadragon is habitat loss from activities such as coastal development, pollution, dredging etc. An unknown, but potentially serious threat, is related to climate change where warmer ocean conditions are allowing the spread of barren-forming sea urchins which graze large seaweeds and inhibit regeneration of kelp forests. Both species are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List.

What can seadragons tell us about evolutionary biology? What other scientific insights can they yield?

The reproductive biology of seadragons may provide insight into the evolution of male pregnancy as they have the simplest form of reproduction in the family with eggs just embedded in spongy tissue on the tail. Other reproductive aspects of seadragons remain enigmatic such as sex roles and whether they are monogamous within and between pregnancies. The extreme camouflage of the leafy seadragon is also a fascinating evolutionary development.

Finally, the growth of algae on the eggs during development but not on the body of the seadragon is a promising area for investigation – how do the seadragons remain free of fouling growth and which genes are switched on/off in the eggs?

Why do we rarely see them in aquariums? Can they be bred in captivity?

We rarely see them in aquariums for a number of reasons – they are difficult to maintain, requiring live food; the export trade from Australia is tightly controlled and they are very expensive to purchase costing many hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There is only a single individual in Australia who captures a few brooding male seadragons each year and raises the offspring for sale soley to public aquariums. Captive breeding has proved difficult but I think that there has been some recent success at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA.

How can we protect seadragons? 

Seadragons are protected by strong federal and state laws in all locations in Australia where they occur so the major contribution to protection that is needed is to ensure that habitat loss is minimised through sensitive coastal development. Marine protected areas where intact habitat is preserved and protected can obviously help.