Pygmy Seahorse Spotting - Leave it to the Professionals!

Photo by J Gregory Sherman
When all else fails, call in the professionals!  For the past 3 months in Indonesia, we were seeking out the elusive pygmy seahorses that are said to live in the delicate branches of the sea fan.  Today was the day I finally gave up and opened my wallet.  After all, the folks at Triton Bay Dive Resort boasted five species of the tiny invertebrates, and I’d failed to find even one on my own.  So, Mark, Elizabeth, and I suited up to go on a dive with ‘Jack’ - the master of finding the macro.

Before entering the water, he told us we’d try to see all five species in this one dive.  I desperately wanted to believe him, but internally I scoffed, “All five in one?  I’d be happy with even one!”  I shushed the pessimistic doubter in me and flipped backwards into the water, determined to stay right with Macro Jack and his bionic eyes.

Immediately, Jack had honed in on a pink gorgonian sea fan and was carefully looking through it to find a pygmy.  His flashlight glinted at me and he motioned me over, using his pointer to indicate a miniscule, pink seahorse!  Then another!  Two on one fan!  They were absolutely awe-inspiring.  Such detail in such a tiny creature!  Jack used his hand to make a round semicircle from his stomach, signaling to me that one of them was pregnant!  I had seen my first pygmy sea horses, pink Denise’s Pygmy Seahorses to be exact.

Jack showing Sarah and Elizabeth the pygmy seahorse
Pygmy seahorse on fan from picture above
Okay, I was one happy camper.  My seahorse box was ticked.  But Macro Jack wasn’t done searching yet!  He stationed himself in front of a nondescript coral wall and set to looking for more tiny critters.  I only thought these seahorses lived in sea fans, but sure enough, what looked like a piece of algae, smaller than a grain of rice, was another pygmy seahorse - the Severn’s species.  Then along that same wall he found the Sotomi species!  That was three in the first half of the dive!  My mind was spinning as my eyes strained to differentiate one speck of seahorse from the other.  I could barely see them, let alone identify discriminating characteristics!

Mark seemed to be having similar vision struggles as he attempted to photograph these minute wonders.  These are the times he wishes he had reading lenses inside his mask, because trying to see if a speck is in focus with a busy coral reef in the background is quite the impossible task.  Other divers we’ve seen carry large magnifying glasses and sophisticated macro photography lenses and lights that cost a small fortune.  Unfortunately, that’s not quite in our cruising budget, so Mark does his best with he has, and manages to get some amazing shots!

See size relative to fingernail...the seahorse is in the bottom right quadrant of photo!

The smallest of the pygmy seahorse swimming!  VERY hard to photograph..so not a very good pic...
For the next portion of the dive, Jack showed us a few more little critters that we’d never seen before.  When Elizabeth showed him a nudibranch, he pointed to a tendril of a plant growing up from the same piece of coral rubble.  Only when I used a magnifying glass could I see what he was pointing to - long, thin crustaceans clinging to the stem.  Elizabeth knew what they were right away, remembering the highly magnified photo in the ID books - skeleton shrimp!  Under one coral pebble, he uncovered a mosaic octopus who quickly skittered under the rock again as it changed colors to match.  Each time we’d uncover it, it would scurry somewhere else and morph into the color and texture of its new hiding spot, flattening or elongating its body to perfectly camouflage itself.  Although I’d been anxious for my first pygmy seahorse sighting, this little octopus stole the show.  I marveled at how many creatures have been lurking in this underwater macro world that I never knew were there!  Suddenly, these coral walls are teeming with a whole new level of life!

Searching for more seahorses!
Jack 'The Man' with macro vision and Sarah
While we were in the Solomon Islands, we did a few dives with Lisa Choquette of Solomon Diving Adventures.  She is absolutely obsessed with fish behaviors.  I remember that after diving with her, my perspective underwater changed drastically.  No longer was I merely trying to identify fish, but I was watching them intently to see what they did.  Her passion and expertise opened my eyes to a new aspect of diving.  Similarly, Macro Jack’s experience and patient examination of the reef showed me what else I can discover underwater.  Sure, we have a compressor, tanks, and our own mini dive operation on board, but I am realizing that my diving is enriched and elevated to new levels when I call on the dive gurus at the local dive shops to show me around the reefs they’ve come to love.

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