Saturday September 2nd and Sunday September 3rd 2017
Found in shallow tropical and temperate waters, seahorses have been the focus of marine experts across the world with their unique shape and features. At first glance, they’re a bit unusual, bobbing and drifting in the water, looking more like horses than fish. Yet seahorses are fish, and their behaviour is fascinating — they use their long snouts to suck in plankton and small crustaceans, and are among the only animal species in which the male gets pregnant. Their remarkable abundance and variety also make them popular among divers, who enjoy photographing them in various habitats worldwide.
Sadly, however, the enormous demand for seahorses has depleted their number in the wild. Some end up in countries like China or Hong Kong where they are said to have medicinal properties, while others become part of objects such as pendants or key rings. In light of this, moves are underway to preserve seahorses and address such issues. One example is The Seahorse Trust (http://www.theseahorsetrust.org), a UK charity set up in 1999 that studies seahorses and their habitats worldwide to educate the public and raise awareness of seahorse protection. In the Trust are a group of volunteers who help with fundraising, data collection and underwater surveys.
During my time in Japan, I helped the Trust with research and record keeping by sending them seahorse photos, so it was great to make contact with them in the UK recently when I learned about their new seahorse survey course — two days in the classroom for anyone interested in seahorses and how to survey them. Without hesitation, I put my name down for the first session at the National Dive and Activity Centre in Chepstow.
After introducing ourselves, things began with course leader Beccy explaining more about the Seahorse Trust, course content and objectives. We then looked at what a seahorse is, covering taxonomy, different species (there are approximately 45 – 65) and features including gill openings, eyes and of course their tails that can hold on to weeds and other objects in the strongest tides and currents. We also had a laugh over the male’s ability to get pregnant, especially as Beccy had given birth to her first child only weeks before the course! The next session explained why seahorses are under threat (habitat destruction, pollution, disturbance), measures to preserve them (Marine Conservation Zones, legal protection, controlling illegal trade) and whether we, as divers, could make a difference. The clear answer is yes, the most important message being that diver surveys are an opportunity to learn more about seahorses in the wild and thus crucial to their future conservation.
Things became more interactive when we looked at how to carry out an underwater survey. We learned how to look for seahorses, signs of stress they exhibit (tucking head into the chest, looking small) and how to use GPS devices and a compass. Four search techniques are generally used depending on what you are after, and we put those into practice by moving around the classroom, asking and answering questions. Other areas were also covered – why and how to record data, what data to collect, filling in a Seahorse Survey Reporting Form and taking photos. What really struck me was how, after taking this course, volunteers can join the Seahorse Trust for a survey dive at any time and apply for a license to survey seahorses in the wild — a UK requirement. The Trust is also arranging instructor training for this very course, so anyone who has taken it can then learn how to teach it to others.
It’s great that the Seahorse Trust invests time and money in its volunteers like this, and recognizes how citizen-science can provide sound scientific information to get a more long-term picture of seahorses and their habitats. No doubt a better-informed community of divers will help make better decisions and actively support sustainable marine management.
I was more than happy to invest my own time and money in this course because it will give me an opportunity to make a direct impact on seahorses and their habitats through surveys. By talking to the other participants, I was also able to learn a great deal about the UK marine environment in an enjoyable and interactive setting. There is still a long way to go towards solving the struggle of the ocean’s seahorses. However, if this course and underwater surveys can make even the tiniest difference, I’m more than happy to be a part of that.