Seahorses are very rare on Koh Tao. Every time we encounter one we come up to the surface with a big smile on our faces. But what makes this bizarre creature so especial? To start with, they are very different from all other fish: cute horse-like heads, long tails, they swim vertically, males giving birth to the offspring...did they evolve to look adorable, just so we as a species would want to protect them? Well, definitely not. Since seahorses appeared on planet Earth a lot earlier than us, about 25 million years ago to be exact, it is however true that we all collectively feel a sort of affection towards seahorses because they look a bit like us, or at least remind us of other animals close to humans…horses one might daresay. Their enigmatic appearances stir sympathetic emotions within us - tenderness and for some even love.
Except for some nerds (cough* Rahul), most of us don’t “fall in love” with a scorpionfish, a sea cucumber or a sponge. The closer the species are from humans, evolutionary speaking, the more sympathetic we feel towards them; particularly mammals, especially baby ones for that matter.
H. trimaculatus, easy to identify by its hook-like cheek spine , is mostly observed at the surface or on very shallow waters by the beach.
Maybe seahorses are not a keystone species like sharks, but they are definitely an excellent indicator species when considering our anthropogenic impacts on marine ecosystems. Being very susceptible to changes in their habitat, their population dynamics can tell us about the ways in which we are changing the water quality of our oceans and the speed at which we’re destroying their habitats due to irresponsible fishing activities.
The bad news for seahorses is that even being loved by most divers, snorkelers and almost everyone who sees them in a picture, is that they are also very coveted in ancient, traditional medicine, particularly in places like China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Thailand is the top seahorse exporter in the world, trading about 5 million individuals a year! A staggering statistic given how rarely we observe them in the wild. In 2016 the Thai government banned the trading market to make it more sustainable, but it is still too early to determine any change – and despite these efforts the illegal trade still exists and is even benefiting from such embargos .
H. Spinossissimus, the most common species on Koh Tao, riding on a sea urchin at the very deep “muck”
Since 2013, the NHRCP has been surveying Koh Tao’s waters looking for these rare Syngnathids. Until now we have 62 sightings of three different species: H. kuda, H. trimaculatus and H. spinosissimus, the last of which is the most common around the island. Across the planet seahorses are found in all kind of ecosystems, but on Koh Tao we mostly find them in the deep sands, also known as the “muck”. The muck is a very dynamic ecosystem that changes from season to season. That is why our seahorse observations vary so much from year to year. We’ll continue scouring the waters of Koh Tao to better track and understand the populations of these shy and threatened creatures, contributing our observations to global databases like iSeahorse so we can continue contributing to our global understanding of these beautiful, fragile creatures.
2015 was “the year of the seahorse” for the NHRCP. Most of the individuals were observed at the same bay, Sai Nuan.
Out of 7 species of seahorse found at the Gulf of Thailand, only 3 have been observed so far on Koh Tao.
The majority of males observed on Koh Tao were pregnant, giving some hope for the future seahorse populations of the island.
ISeahorse is a citizen science organization we have been working with for many years. Using data taken by volunteers from all around the world. They are able to estimate the seahorse populations across our planet’s oceans thanks to observations made by programs like our own, and other citizen scientists and dive aficionados. Thanks to this research and these continued efforts, governments will be better able to take action to protect these vulnerable species and their habitats.
After 5 years collaborating with iSeahorse, New Heaven Reef Conservation Program has become an iSeahorse ambassador for Thailand. We are very honored to receive this title and will continue to commit ourselves to monitoring Koh Tao’s seahorse populations in our fight for their conservation.