Monday, October 19, 2009

Exploring new worlds: seahorses - by Judge Jim Gray

Before we went on our recent trip to the big island of Hawaii, a real estate broker I have been dealing with strongly suggested we visit Ocean Riders Seahorse Farm on the Kona coast.

This is a place that raises seahorses and sea dragons, educates the public about them, and sells them to people for their aquariums. We took her advice, and it was really worth the effort.

As you know, seahorses have a head like a horse, a tail like a monkey, and a pouch like a kangaroo, so they have developed a certain mythical quality. But they actually are real, although I confess that I didn’t know much about them until our visit.

Sea dragons have a similar makeup, but it looks like they have seaweed or kelp growing out of many parts of their bodies.

The female deposits her eggs into the brood pouch of the male, and then, after a one-month period of gestation, the male gives birth to the offspring – and there can be up to 1,800 in one delivery!

Then about two minutes after that, the female again inserts her eggs. As a result, the adult male is not pregnant for a total of only two minutes every month. (Many women in our world probably fantasize about a situation like this, but the seahorses actually live it.)

Seahorses use their prehensile tails to hook onto underwater vegetation, as well as onto each other, and they have protective bony plates in their skin, and a tube-like mouth for sucking in crustaceans.

And many seahorses actually have character! Just like dolphins, they seem to have fun. For example, they wrap their tales around each other and “dance.” To watch them do this is really endearing.

And they don’t mind being touched, to the extent that if you tickle the tip of one’s tail, it will often wrap its tail around your finger.

In fact, the workers at the farm actually have names for some of the seahorses they have grown most fond of. And at the end of our tour, after carefully washing our hands, we were treated to having some of their favorites wrap their tails around our fingers.

Because these are such cute and interesting creatures, there is a big financial incentive that drives many people to capture them in the wild and sell them. But what these people do not know is that it is natural for seahorses to be monogamous, and they usually have only one mate for life. So if one is captured from the ocean, it will almost always pine away for its mate, to the degree that it soon stops eating.

This means it will almost always be dead within four to six weeks, and the same fate also will befall its mate left in the wild.

So due to the unregulated capturing of seahorses for aquariums, as well as to be dried up into souvenirs and to be ground up and used as supposed medicines in many Asian cultures, about 20 million of them are taken from the oceans each year. This, added to problems of habitat destruction, ocean pollution, and such practices as dynamiting the ocean to gather fish, has resulted in seahorses becoming endangered.

So where there used to be thousands close to our shores, now finding even one in the oceans around our country is rare. And the seahorse population in places like the Philippines has fallen by about 70% in the last 10 years.

Ocean Riders is the only seahorse and sea dragon farm in the United States. It raises them from birth, gathers food for them, and sells them to individuals throughout the country, except in Hawaii.

They also have several programs and tours that teach people about these interesting creatures. And teach us they did.

The farm-raised seahorses and sea dragons have a survival rate up to adulthood of up to 80%, while the rate in the wild is only about 0.1%. And if treated well in aquariums, these amazing creatures can live up to eight years.

They range in size from less than an inch to more than a foot long, depending upon the species.

Regarding seahorses and sea dragons for aquariums, the personnel at the farm have trained the ones they grow and sell not to be monogamous. They did it by increasing the numbers of the seahorses in a small space, which resulted in several of them wrapping their tales around each other and dancing at the same time. That way once they are sold they are much more likely to be able to survive on their own. In the wild, seahorses eat only live brine shrimp and crustaceans, but the farm-raised ones have been trained to eat food that has been dried. So because they are some of the rare life forms that do not have any stomachs, and also because they are not able to chew, that makes their conversion to eat dried food even more important.

All of these efforts are directed to reducing the threat to the continued existence of seahorses and sea dragons in the wild.

By raising them domestically and selling them for a reasonable price, the staff hopes to reduce the business for those people who capture the seahorses in the wild and sell them for aquariums.

The staff also gets involved in legislation to stop the decimation of the wild seahorse population in the oceans of the world, and in encouraging people to be better stewards of our world’s oceans.

If you are interested in learning more about this great work of saving seahorses and sea dragons from extinction through research, propagation, education and ocean conservation, or even if you would like to schedule your own tour of their facility, Ocean Rider can be contacted at (808) 443-6462, or through But whatever contact you have with this fine organization, I think you will be favorably impressed.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

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