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Save the Pygmy Seahorses

DSC_1161I first saw a Pygmy Seahorse diving from a Mike Ball boat, the “Spoilsport” on a trip to the Bismark Sea, at the northern reaches of Papua New Guinea (PNG). We circumnavigated the island of New Hanover, and also dived around New Ireland, after departing from Kavieng.  I recall the seas were very calm for the whole trip, and it was very hot. On the incoming tide, at Albatross Passage, between New Ireland and Baudisson Island, I went with the guide, down a wall to 90 feet, and was shown one of these tiny, delicate creatures on a sea fan. It was barely discernible with the naked eye, and I did not have a camera at the time. On subsequent dives in the Pacific, including Palau, PNG, the Solomon Islands, and Indonesia they have been a point of great photographic interest. The reward structure for guides on dive boats encourages them to show the Pygmy Seahorses to well-intentioned guests, as photographic subjects. The creatures are subjected to stainless steel rods to find them on the sea fans, and ultra bright strobe lights when they are photographed.

In my opinion we should not be subjecting these creatures to mechanical manipulation, and flash photography.  I will discuss my reasons.  I have linked this gallery on my regular blog to the new site www.savethepygmyseahorses.com.  You may noticed I have used a GoDaddy hosting, with smug mug.  This seemed to offer the best combination of flexibility, and price.  Readers may enjoy my home site www.beyondeyelevel.com.

Tawali Day 2Dianes Reef  China Reef 016The existence of the seven different species of Pygmy Seahorses was not known until recently. Prior to 2000 only the “Hippocampus bargibanti” was known, but six other types have been described in the last 13 years.  They were originally discovered from commercial fishing operations harvesting Gorgonian sea fans.   Tiny wriggling things washed down onto the decks of the fishing boats from the sea fans.  They were not discovered by divers on the fan in situ. Did you know that the “H bargabanti” live only on one genus of Gorgonia coral, the “Muricella sp.”, whereas the “H. denise” is known to live on at least nine genera of Gorgonia.  Diving in Milne Bay, PNG we found the “H. bargabanti”, “H.  denise “, and the “H. severnsi”.  The “H. severnsi” are actually free living, and can be found on hydroids and algae substrate. It was on this trip, I actually observed a Pygmy Seahorse taken by a Long-nose Hawkfish “Oxycirrhites typus”, after flash photography.

Tawali Day 2Dianes Reef  China Reef 036In 2011 I spent a lovely week at Lembeh resort in Indonesia, well cared for by my hosts, and enjoyed excellent diving with Herge and Kerri of www.gotmuck.com . (Please see my images from Lembeh at www.beyondeyelevel.com, and also my log of recent trip to Raja Ampat with Herge and Kerri, “Astride the Equator”) . It was here at Lembeh I met Dr. Richard Smith, and learned much from his interesting lectures.  I got to know Richard, who is the world’s leader in understanding of the Pygmy Seahorse. He has achieved a truly unique first in marine biology, a PhD degree for his research, in 2011.  The design of his studies was both simple and elegant, in my book pure brilliance.  To learn more from Richard, please go to his website: www.oceanrealmimages.com . The conservation-minded individuals at Lembeh raised my awareness of the plight of the Pygmy Seahorses; and, sensibly advocated limiting the number of strobe flash photographs taken. Along with this awareness, obviously is the need to limit the harvest of their habitat,  the Gorgonia sea fans.

The IndoPacific area is experiencing an increase in dive tourism, as the standard of living of numerous Asian countries continues to rise.  This will put greater pressure on the marine environment.  Already, diving in Thailand, I have seen divers literally queuing up to take a photograph of even a Nudibranch.  Please see my article at www.beyondeyelevel.com on the “Scintilllating Similans”.  I gave away the idea of photographing a “regular” seahorse “Hippocampus hystrix” when I was fifth in line!  Even at Lembeh, there was a conscious effort to manage the dive sites, using site rotation and rest principles, to lessen the impact of divers. With competing resorts in the area,  this was a fragile process at the best of times.

With newer photographic techniques allowing magnification of digital images, I analysed  photographs of Pygmy Seahorses.  I believe the eye of the Pygmy Seahorse has no pupil in the usual sense (recall I am an Eye Surgeon by trade). Now, I have not got dissection evidence for this belief, that would be taking it to a ridiculous extreme, to kill an endangered  creature to prove my point.  You will notice that it is very unusual to get a photograph of one face on, showing two eyes. They turn their backs to the light.  Now, a bright flash is blinding enough for humans, but consider the impact on a dark adapted eye, without a pupil, subjected to repetitive strobe flashes.  It would be blinding, and as a result put the creature at risk from disorientation, and therefore put it at risk of attack by predators.

Cheries Reef with sea horsi 057

Now, we are all guilty, and have all done “it”.  But, it is time to recognise the error of our ways, that we are putting these elegant and beautiful creatures at risk with our photography.  So what is there to do?  The best answer is to stop flash photography altogether; I am not sure that will be possible, given the trophy nature of these images.  I am proposing a partial solution, the creation of a web based gallery of  images available for photographers to draw from.  The assumption is that if images are available, it may limit the exposure of the Pygmy Seahorses to the impact of underwater photography. I have set up this website for this purpose.

Here is how it works, and please bear with us while we get the IT glitch free.  Firstly, the images are not for sale or commercial use.  With my images, I retain full copyright and licensing.  If presenting the image in the public domain, the source must be credited. This system does work on the honesty principle, and while that may seem high minded of me, let us give it a trial. I have paid the set up costs, and with my geeky IT consultants will pay to keep the site going; it is not for profit. I would encourage other photographers to contribute images, and this can be done by sending them to me by email, roger@newwakaya.com and I will post them. It will be possible to download the images, but please be selective.  Hopefully, we can construct a world bank of Pygmy Seahorse images. Please also send my information on the general location, depth of water, temperature, and water conditions as there may well be a research angle to derive from this process.

Forum.  Please leave a note. Tell us what you think.  It would be appreciated if we know who our subscribers are. The site has the potential capacity to work as an interactive blog.  It would be great to have learned commentary from Pygmy Seahorse academics.

This is a very worthwhile cause.  The Pygmy Seahorses need our help. Let’s give it a go.