My time and take with Hawaiian Seahorses

~ photos and story by Don McLeish

 

There are two kinds of seahorses in Hawaii, a small pelagic one that lives out in the deep and is often found by

fishermen and then the seahorse that lives in the shallows on and around the reefs. It goes by a number of names,

common, smooth, yellow seahorse and apparently was considered of the hippocampus kuda species until more recently

when it has been classified as hippocampus hilonis, or so I gather. At any rate these seahorses are not common and I

was told 20 years ago, by a long time dive friend who has lived on Maui for many years, that I would likely never see

one.


Well a few years back I got to talking with another diver friend and he mentioned that he had seen a seahorse in a

particular area in the shallows off north Kaanapali Beach the previous year. I told him that if he ever saw one again,

to please let me know. The few I had heard about would typically remain in the same area for a few days up to a couple

months so it would be possible to see one if you heard about it in a timely fashion.


Months or possibly even a year later, this same friend, Mike, swam out to get me one day while I was snorkeling an

area he also dove often. He figured I would be out there and he wanted to tell me he had seen a seahorse that morning

when he was taking a group out diving. He asked me if I wanted to join him in looking for it. We got out of the water

and drove up and met at the spot in question a little while later. The date was Sep 20, 2009 and I got to see my first

seahorse! Here is Mike and the female we found:

As we soon discovered, there was a small male in there as well:

We watched these two grow and actually ended up with as I recall three additional seahorses, take up residence in the

"pasture". There is something special for the seahorses in this particular small area of shallow reef and although

similar algae and seafloor conditions can be found nearby, no seahorses can be found.  It may be the proximity of a

stream combined with a rip current that flows over this area that makes it prime for the seahorses. Along with other

divers and interested locals as well as visitors, I took many photos of these seahorses and visited them often. To have

these residents so close and available was apparently very uncommon. Unfortunately winter storms and surf have easy

access to the area and can remove or deposit tons of sand and debris to the area in a violent and kinetic fashion. By the

first of the year (2010), the seahorses were all gone.

The next fall we anticipated a possible return of seahorses and we did have one small female show up but she only

hung around for a couple weeks:

2010 was almost a bust for seahorses but with the one for a short period the hope remained.

In the end of September of 2011, Tim of Tiny Bubbles Diving encountered a tiny female seahorse and the word spread

among us seahorse watchers. It wasn't until October 11th that I was finally able to find her:


As she grew, she maintained an orange/ red color and Tim ended up naming her Lucy. A few days later, I found her

again and took a shot of her by my watch which ultimately ended up going viral on the internet:

In the shot below you can see her color starting to show.

At the end of October, I discovered a male seahorse about the same size and likely age as Lucy (who had grown

significantly in just a months time):

The male is on the left in the image above and if you look at the profile of these fish you can see that the female has a

sharp return of her belly to tail whereas the male has a double curve in the front with his pouch that is starting to

develop, below his chest and this pouch tapers more gradually to his tail. I assume the reader understands that with

seahorses, the female deposits her eggs in the male’s pouch and he fertilizes them and ultimately gives live birth of the

fry by shooting them out of his pouch.

This male became known as Ricky. It also became obvious that the two were interested in each other and they became

a pair.

In the image above, you can see Ricky's soft pouch (he is hanging on to the alga in the foreground) compared to Lucy's

ribbed and armored front side.

Ricky and Lucy grew quickly that fall:

The shot above was taken in the end of November; Ricky following Lucy. By early December, Ricky was showing

signs of becoming a father:

He has a nice round and full pouch.

This was now about the time that the winter storms and surf were likely to send Ricky and Lucy off to safer grounds and

we did have weather that could have caused them to leave but they hung in there! 2012 came and Lucy and Ricky

remained. In mid January 2012, after weeks of surf and sand shifting the water cleared and I got the shot of Lucy below:

And Ricky was seemingly in a constant state of pregnancy:

I have gathered from communicating with some experts that these seahorses could complete a birthing cycle in about 15

days or twice a month and from observing Ricky come to looking like he was about to explode every couple weeks I

think Lucy did a good job of keeping him tied down and pregnant. The males doe not have the mobility that the females

do and you could often find Ricky on the same alga the next day or within feet of it whereas Lucy would often

disappear for a week at a time. I gather from speaking with Carol, the founder of the seahorse farm on the big island of

Hawaii, that they have some females who can keep 3 or 4 males pregnant on an ongoing basis. I have no reason to

suspect Lucy had another male besides Ricky but then she was gone to parts unknown at times. Below is a shot I took of

the pair in the end of February of 2012:

Lucy was really in her prime and showing off with beautiful color:

With any swell and/ or strong trade winds the area is not good for trying to take photos. The surge and sand storms are

a constant element in their environment. The image below is typical of moderate conditions. Bad conditions and no

point in even trying to take a shot.

By this time there have been hundreds of people who have seen and visited Lucy and Ricky. There are a few dive

instructors/ guides who go out through the pasture to a popular dive spot and the seahorses are a feature that not many

can offer to visitors. I personally have shown a number of friends and locals the seahorses as well. Unfortunately often

the conditions were such that people could see and watch the seahorses which can be a real thrill in itself but as a

photographer, the encounter would fall below any real photo potential beyond note. Such was the case in early April

when I got to introduce Jean-Michel Cousteau to Lucy:

Of course the conditions improved as spring came on and in the end of April while out there one day with great

visibility but unable to find Lucy or Ricky, I got it in my head that there might be some new life in the pasture. I should

add that this area is a nursery for other sea life and the seahorses are neighbors to any number of interesting critters. But

back to the point, I started looking closer into the seabed and darned if I didn't spot a youngster!

This little gal grew to adulthood in the pasture but never found a mate that I was aware of. Below is a shot of Ricky

swimming over her:

The seahorses do seem to prefer the halimeda alga for their holdfast or anchor point. When they are adult size it is

much easier to find them than when they are little like the girl below:

In the image below, Ricky and Lucy are sharing the same holdfast while a friend looks in on them:

Before I forget, I want to comment on holding and making physical contact with the seahorses and some of their

behavior. At best I can only offer my opinion and one that is based on hundreds of hours of observation and biased with

an appreciation of not simple desire to make contact with these amazing creatures. For starters seahorses do not have

the option of flight or fight for that matter. Their best defense is that of going unnoticed and it is clear that they can do a

good job at avoiding detection by virtue of their lack of motion and ability to blend with both color and texture with

their environment. They are almost always in contact with foreign objects and life forms. I have watched them hold

tight and get bombarded by organic and inorganic debris. It would seem they have a reasonable armor against contact

and I believe that includes contact with human skin; especially if that skin is not host to transferable lotions or creams.

As to stress of contact I can only guess. I assume it would be in their nature to be resigned to whatever comes in contact

with them as there is little they can do to avoid it. I do believe they can sense the nature of any threat to some degree as

well as become accustomed to human interactions based on experience.


The photos I have included in this story might seem to imply that contact is often but that is not actually the case. Most

of the time, the seahorses are left to do their thing without anyone touching them or moving them. I have included shots

with a hand in the pic as a means of providing scale or documenting the growth of the seahorse. Personally I prefer to

leave the seahorse be and watch and photograph its behavior without my intervention beyond being present. If a

seahorse is tucked in and on a holdfast I have no desire to move it or cause it to move. If a seahorse is on the move or

lets go and goes on the move because I am there I will often make note of where it initially was and return it to that

holdfast when I leave. I won’t actually grab or hold on to the seahorse. I find you can make a loose cage or coral with

your hand and encircle the seahorse with your fingers. More often than not, the seahorse will respond by wrapping its

tail around your finger and you can transport it with it holding on rather than you holding on to it. The males will often

settle in holding on to the point that when you open your fingers up with the intent of releasing the seahorse, it won’t let

go. It’s a good idea to have a lung full of fresh air when you go for a release.


On a related note, it seems the males are much less suited for swimming than the females and this is especially the case

when they are pregnant. The females are much more likely to attempt flight when they see you coming and I have

noticed this can happen when they first see you and from a good distance. It probably even works often for them

especially if you are looking more down and not forward. The male though, especially when adult seem to just hang on

where they are and they seem better suited at tucking in and down in hopes of avoiding detection.

The photo of Ricky above was taken on May15th, 2012. He looks ready to burst and given the shot of him below, taken

the next day, it would appear that he gave birth sometime between the two shots:

Ricky's pouch looks deflated and it would be my guess that Lucy was here to serve up the next batch of brood.

Another thing I noticed both at the time and was further able to determine in reviewing the images, was that when a pair

of seahorses were close to each other, they would alter their physical appearance. For Lucy this involved an almost

glow of orange in her chest even when she was sporting the drab dull copper/ green colors. For Ricky, he would

expand his chest and you could see the wrinkles disappear and dark dots looking like pores would show up. This is

somewhat evident in the image above but I will also add a couple more as illustration of this:

If you compare Ricky's chest in the image above taken on March 14, 2012 where Lucy is close by to his chest in the

image below taken the next day, the 15th when he was photographed on his own, I think you can see the difference. This

change in appearance comes about quickly but I don't have photo evidence in support of this; that I know of anyway. I

have taken thousands of images of these seahorses with no plans or design of what I might do with them.

Back to the time line, Lucy was keeping Ricky "busy".

And the small female was growing.

In the image below, you can see how Lucy has grown and you can also see a small fin she has in her "pelvic" region.

This is a fin the adult males do not have. Whether this adds anything to their mobility I have no idea.

In the end of June, on the 26th, I discovered a newcomer to the pasture:

We quickly opted to call her Little Lucy due to her color.

In the time frame that she elected to recruit to the pasture, there is a fair amount of acanthophora alga present and it is

likely the reason that she along with the other small female that showed up earlier have the filamentous skin extensions

growing out of the tops of their heads and back. They can blend in much better and become that much more difficult to

find.

On the 29th of June we were treated to some exceptionally clear water and great conditions. The shot of Lucy below

may be my best seahorse pic of all.

More from that great day:

The next day, the 30th of June 2012, some friends joined me in the pasture and one of them discovered a young male.

The pic below is of him with "Little Lucy" (He became known as Little Ricky; big surprise):

Little Ricky:

And Lucy and Ricky were around as well:

What came as a further surprise was an additional, tiny female that was discovered:

In a matter of days, we went from three seahorses in the pasture to possibly six if the original small female was still

around but not accounted for.

In the shot above taken on July 6th, you can see that Little Lucy and Little Ricky are hitting it off well and although he is

still small, he has expanded his chest in her presence.

Lucy took advantage of these calm conditions and could be seen cruising around while Ricky would hang on in one

place.

Lucy in the foreground with Little Lucy off at a bit of distance:

Now Little Lucy in the foreground:

In order to try to get them in the same plane for a size comparison, I set up a road block with my hand:

The free and easy days of summer and relatively quiet waters!

Ricky above and Little Ricky below.

I gather from talking to women about the life and times of seahorses that there is an element of envy with these obvious

role reversals in maternal/ paternal duties and even the free and easy life styles based on genders.

Little Ricky and Little Lucy:

Note that although they are different in color, from above, they both blend in well with the algae due to the filamentous

skin extensions they sport. In contrast, the adults, Ricky and Lucy are much smoother and more obvious.

All July the two pairs of seahorses did what pairs of seahorses are wont to do. Even though they are more likely to be

found separated by some distance it has been observed and reported that seahorses do stay in contact and get together at

least once a day.

At the end of July and for most of August, another pair of related fish showed up in the pasture. Initially I only saw one

of them and needed to confirm with a well known and published Hawaiian fish expert, John Hoover, that this fish was

what I thought it to be; an Edmondson's pipe fish. Pipe fish are related to the seahorses and the males have the same

parenting role.

These guys were tiny! After a few return visits, I discovered that there were indeed a pair of them.

On one day that the conditions were too poor to even think about taking any photos, I came upon the pair intertwined

like a double helix up in the water column. They were mating.

Unlike the seahorses, these pipe fish seemed to keep closer track of each other and would ultimately get back in close

proximity.

At the time I was getting these images, John Hoover felt that I might be the only person to have photographed the

Edmondson's pipefish in their natural habitat. There were few images available on line and those I could find were

either of a fish in an aquarium or deceased. They are endemic to Hawaii and one of its most elusive and rare

inhabitants.

I found it interesting and perhaps not a coincidence that they would find a temporary residence right in the heart of the

small area held by their relatives, the seahorses. There are other pipefish in Hawaii, the red and blue stripe pipefish

and they are apparently more common than the Hawaiian seahorse but these smaller Edmondson's are a different story.

I should note that they may be more common than thought and simply overlooked due to their small size and propensity

to hide in the algae but i have been looking for more ever since that one time and to no avail. I did discover that

somehow my brain filters what I am seeing and if I am looking for pipe fish I can easily overlook a much larger

seahorse. It's ideal to approach the view with an open mind and eyes open but I think one can better find a critter hiding

if one applies some sort of pattern recognition to the scene.

The endemic green Hawaiian lionfish is quite common out in the "pasture":

Bracing my hand across two pieces of dead coral one day while taking a shot of one of the seahorses I came to

discover that one of these lionfish had been hiding under one of the rocks and it retaliated against my covering its

escape by piercing my palm with one of its poisonous dorsal spines. It was a painful experience and one I don't plan to

repeat.

I have also now twice encountered a pair of bubble snails out there:

I wasn't quick enough to get a good shot but on the 15th of July I came upon Ricky and Lucy mating up in the water

column. The pic below was a rush and shot from the hip:

Little Ricky below is showing the pouch of a more mature adult.

Little Lucy sort of stole the show out there due to her bright color and ease of finding her. The shot below was taken in

the first part of September:

Regardless. Lucy must have been proud in her own right considering how she kept Ricky busy (twice a month!):

By mid September, it seemed both Lucy and Little Lucy had their men constantly in the baby making cycle. Little Ricky

below:

Little Lucy was pretty:

But there was no doubting who the real matriarch out in the pasture was, Lucy:

When I see images of seahorses of the same or similar species and especially those kept in an aquarium I can't help but

notice how slight or frail they appear when I think of the stout and sturdy Lucy who has now survived the full season of

weather and risk out there. I have watched her hold on through crashing waves and whiteouts of sand blasting as well

as loose hold and get blasted yards across the seabed with rubble, tossed about at will.

With winter approaching, would Little Lucy have the same mettle?

October seems to be a month when shortarm sand octopus show up in pairs to mate possibly? Below is a shot of one

with the fifth seahorse, the female who was never named nor did she hook up with a mate that any of us ever saw:

Another critter almost always seen out in the pasture and often in multiples is the snowflake eel:

They seem indifferent to the seahorses and visa versa.

Green sea turtles as well as the occasional hawksbill sea turtle will visit the pasture in search of food and I have seen

eagle rays swim through. The eagle ray may be the one real predator of seahorses here although I think the bigges

t threat is probably man.

In mid October, I got these shots of Lucy and Little Lucy on the move.

This shot of Little Lucy and the fifth, unnamed female, I find a bit perplexing:

Are they the same species? Again common names for these seahorses are yellow seahorse and smooth seahorse both

terms that seem to fit will with Little Lucy but look at the ridges around the unnamed seahorse. If you look at Lucy, her

chest topography seems to fit between the two. I suppose if seahorses expected people to look the same they would

have much greater cause for doubt. And look at the differences in tail size between the two:

In rough weather I put my money on the unnamed gal!

A couple days after these shots, my wife Alice and I took a short trip to the big island and visited the seahorse farm

while there.

These are not the same species as the Hawaiian seahorse but related. In tranquil water and no pounding would there be

any genetic call to buff out or armor up? The folks at the farm were very nice and full of information and insight in

general but I left still confused about our local west Maui seahorses.

Above and below, the two boys.

More shots from October with nice conditions:

Giant alert!!

And into November:

Lucy below showing some orange again:

But Little Lucy still going for the color win:

Some December shots of the four:

And Lucy on Christmas Eve:

The four made it into the new year (2013)

On January 12, 2013 I was watching Little Ricky and Little Lucy when he swam over to the same hold fast as she was

on and they proceeded to twist around the algae in different directions. This went on for perhaps as much as a minute.

I sensed something was up and Ricky looked deflated having likely recently given birth. Sure enough. They left the

halimeda plant and swam up into the water column:

In the image below, she is transferring her eggs to him:

As they separate, you can see some residual membrane of the transfer:

Close cropped:

This was the second time I got to witness the mating but this time I got some reasonable shots. and as it turned out this

was a significant moment for other reasons.

The shot above was taken of Little Lucy on January 17th prior to some large surf that was predicted to hit. It's the last

time I saw her. The surf lasted for a couple days and as it started to settle down to the point I could visit, I got the shot

below of Lucy and Ricky riding out the end of it together:

Little Ricky was still around and I got the shot below of him:

These were days for getting "proof shots" and not quality images. In addition to surf coming in we had rain and run off

from the nearby stream that filled the pasture with dead leaves and debris. On one day a couple weeks after seeing

Little Ricky and Little Lucy mating I went out and the conditions were obviously so bad I didn't even bother taking a

camera (always a mistake!) I was still hopeful to find Little Lucy return. I only found Little Ricky and he was acting

odd. He was holding on tight to a halimeda stalk and he would arch his body way back and then double up forward.

A couple times I could see his pouch opening very large and open. I suspected it was possibly birthing going on but it

was very difficult to remain in place as I would get lifted by a wave and set towards the beach and then have to swim

back. I tried to time a dive down during one of his convulsions and at one point I got down and saw something coming

out of his pouch. At this point I am confident it was a baby seahorse but I was unable at the time to get a good visual on

it and with so much garbage in the water it would have been impossible to identify any fry that might still be about.

Besides anything not fast to the bottom was getting cycled forward and back with the waves and tossed about. Within a

week or so of seeing this, Little Ricky also disappeared. I can only hope that Little Lucy had found a safer haven and

that Little Ricky somehow found her and they were reunited.

Ricky above in early March and Lucy below also in early March.

We were down to just Ricky and Lucy but the winter storms and surf were likely past us and they had now survived

their second winter season. Thing were looking good for the pair.

But then disaster struck, March 25, 2013.

I had been riding some small waves over the pasture and when back on the beach I saw Mike and he told me he had

seen Ricky and that he was wounded. I grabbed my snorkel gear and camera and swam out and found Ricky and took

the pic above. Part of his insides were hemorrhaged and hanging out on the one side of his pouch. There was no

indication of any sort of wound on the other side and it is my strong suspicion that someone might have stepped on him.

What I have not mentioned I believe is that where these seahorses dwell is in shallow water just off the beach and in

front of two large resorts. Daily there are new visitors who will rent or own reef walkers or fins and a day won't go by

if the conditions are at all favorable that you won't see someone or some group of people standing in the pasture;

oblivious to what is beneath the surface. Numerous times I would be focused on the seahorses and see some feet or fins

enter the picture and headed right where the seahorses are. Lucy would see a threat and let go and swim off but Ricky

was often hunkered down and possibly not even aware of any threat.

I went out the next day and a couple days following hoping to find Ricky somehow on the mend but I never saw him

again nor has anyone else.

Lucy was now on her own but would she stay?

I visited her for the rest of the month and into April. I went out on my birthday to see her and took the shot below:

There was no doubt that Lucy was a survivor but hearing tell of paired seahorses in captivity where a surviving mate

often died after loosing its other half one could only wonder about her well being. At the seahorse farm they are trying

to breed in and encourage promiscuity with their seahorses to minimize the loss of a mate. I think part of the program is

having a good number of seahorses put in the same tank together but this is not something that happens at least out in the

pasture.

Lucy is without a mate but perhaps not without friends. And of all ages and sizes.

Lucy hung in there through the spring and into summer.

The pic above was taken in the beginning of August and Lucy seemed to have some color back. On the 5th of August

I was watching Lucy swim through the pasture when all of a sudden it looked like part of the algae clung to her as she

passed a clump of it. I was not expecting to see what it was that stuck with her. A small yellow male!!

Widow Lucy is now a cougar!

Junior has a way to go before he can fulfill Lucy's needs but she has time.

He certainly looks game to fit the bill.

For a few days, there was a relatively uncommon thornback cowfish in the pasture. A few times while following it and

taking pics, we would come across Lucy or Junior. Below the cowfish swims over Lucy:

And on another day:

And a couple days later, over Junior:

In the first part of September I got a visit from Carol who is the founder of the seahorse farm on the big island. We

went out in the pasture and although the conditions were quite poor, we did find Lucy and Carol got a chance to meet

her. Carol mentioned that the ongoing relationship that I and others had with Lucy and the other seahorses was, to her

knowledge, unheard of. I gathered that the opportunity for observation of individual, resident seahorses like Lucy and

the others was rather unique.

In mid September I got some shots of Lucy with Junior:

And again towards the end of September (20th):

October marked the end of the second year that Lucy had been resident and I felt we would have plenty of time for

future visits as well.

November came and all seemed well.

Lucy and Junior were both looking good and interested in each other.

At the end of the first week of November the reports were in that we could expect some large surf as well as some rain.

On the 6th of November I went out to check on the seahorses and took the shot below of Lucy:

Had I known that this would be the last day I would see her, I would have taken more images and spent more time with

her. Heck I would have cried watching her and knowing that it was goodbye. Fortunately I just thought it was another

day.

A shot of waves breaking well outside of the "pasture" and rolling in all the way to the beach taken on the 9th of

November:

After the surf died down and I even had a couple fun days riding the waves over the pasture, I went out to check on the

seahorses but Lucy was not to be found. Junior was hanging in though:

I would guess that there had been no opportunity to forage or eat for over a week out there due to the rough conditions

and need to simply hang on.

The pic of Junior below was taken on the 18th of November and although I have looked for him again a few times and

spent probably 4-5 hours in the area, I have not seen him again. Today is Thanksgiving Day, 11-28-13. It's been 10

days since Junior was last seen and a bit more than three weeks since Lucy was seen.

I would like nothing more than to append this story with an update but my gut tells me the seahorses have left; I can only

hope they have moved on to a better place.