Full-size seahorse photographed in Manado, North Suluwesi, Indonesia.
Everybody loves a seahorse. Maybe it's because of their equine faces. They can be found in both temperate and tropical waters. Studland Bay, off the coast of Dorset, is known to have a population clinging to its weedy seabed. They are jealously protected from intrusion by underwater photographers but a voluntary body calling itself the Seahorse Trust. Elsewhere, I've photographed seahorses as far apart as St.Vincent in the Caribbean and South Leyte in the Philippines.
Caribbean seahorse. (St.Vincent)
Although sedentary by nature and seeming only to use prevailing currents to drift from location to location, they are quite difficult to photograph because they tend to shy away from cameras. It's as if, childlike, they think that if they cannot see a perceived threat it won't be able to see them. At around 10cm tall, you can get good pictures of them with your compact camera set in macro mode, but you need to be patient. Sometimes it means concentrating on your subject for many minutes, constantly allowing the camera to refocus, until the charming little animal has forgotten that you are there and turns back to face you. Then you grab the moment! Even when diving at night and discovering a seahorse clinging to some coral or maybe a sponge, it can be just as challenging because your light will disturb it. A good trick is to use a red filter
over your focussing light or one that has a red light mode
and they surprise the animal with the sudden pulse of white light from your flash, capturing its image while it is unaware. Most marine animals cannot see red light so that they are undisturbed in this way.
Seahorse photographed under a pier or jetty in South Leyte, Philippines, at night.
The Latin name for seahorse is Hippocampus which means ’Horse Caterpillar’. They without doubt a type of fish, they breathe through gills and control their buoyancy by means of a swim bladder like other typical fish. There are many sub-species but they all tend to live their lives in the same way, clinging to fixed points near the seabed with their long prehensile snake-like tails. They hunt for food by sight and their long thin snouts allow them to poke into nooks and crannies, sucking up tiny crustacea. Seahorse have excellent eyesight and can work their eyes independently so that they can look forwards and backwards at the same time, but they are poor swimmers, relying on their dorsal fins to propel them forwards while their pectoral fins, positioned either side of their head, are use for stability. They move into deep water to avoid rough seas. There are up to forty different species. Sea horses have exo-skeletons and are unusual in that it is the male of the species that carries and broods the eggs. The female passes the eggs to the male and he fertilises them within his pouch so its a sort of reverse pregnancy
Searching for pygmy seahorses on a seafan.
If you visit and dive in Eastern Indonesia, the Philippines and area to the East, you will notice dive guides searching among the gorgonia or seafans. They are looking for pygmy seahorses. This species has been discovered only in recent times but has proved to be a popular subject with underwater photographers. However, you need sharp eyes to see them. They are often only a few millimetres tall but look like perfectly formed animals - only in miniature! You need a powerful macro lens and good contrast lighting to record good images of these charming little beasts. Usually you will need to add a macro wet lens to any camera other than an expensive DSLR that might be equipped with suitably close focussing prime macro lens.
Pygmy seahorse on a red gorgonia. (photographed in Lembeh Strait in North Suluwesi, Indonesia)
Even then you might think of adding a suitable wet dioptre lens too, but you don’t need a top-of-the-range camera to get good seahorse pictures, even it they are so tiny. You can fit a powerful plus-10 dioptre macro wet lens
to almost any camera housing that has a 67mm thread to its front port. Even if you have a proprietary plexiglass underwater housing with a rectangular front port you can usually obtain an adapter
that will allow you to fit bayonet-type wet lenses
. You can even stack these macro lenses to enable you to photograph the smallest subjects. You can even get something similar for your GoPro
. Not only can you fit a wet lens but, because the camera is so close to the subject when you take a picture, it’s one time that the in-built camera flash might give you a satisfactory result. This will rely on fitting the light diffuser that originally came with the housing. However an off-board ancillary flashgun or strobe
will be more controllable. You could use a video light but remember that although it will be close enough to your subject to give a good exposure, it might also fry it! It will certainly disturb it. Come in to Ocean Leisure and discuss what you might need to photograph seahorses.
THE EFFECT ON SEAHORSES
A tiny pygmy seahorse photographed in the Philippines. It is clinging to the gorgonia (sea fan) and has adopted the same colour as a method of disguise. (Photographed in the Philippines)
In 2009, marine scientist Dave Harasti completed a study in Australia that looked at the direct impact of flash photography on seahorses. “One of the reasons why I did the study was that I was tired of hearing or reading that flashes kill seahorses, when there was no scientific proof,” says Dave, who is using the study as part of a PhD thesis on seahorse conservation. Dave has been studying threatened marine species for the past 10 years. A keen underwater photographer, he has also won several major competitions in Australia. “Part of my research is the use of photo IDs,” he explains. “I photograph a seahorse, look for any distinctive marks and use them for future individual identification. I have taken a lot of photographs of individuals and, given that they are still currently alive and in the same spot where I first found them, I consider it very unlikely that flash photography is having an impact on them. “A good example is my ‘Grandpa’ seahorse, which I have been photographing for three and half years. He’s still alive, currently mating with a real hot (in seahorse eyes) gold female, and is still found in the same spot. This says to me that flash photography does not cause seahorses to die or migrate from their location. “The work I have been doing is on the White’s seahorse (Hippocampus whitei) and to a lesser extent the pot-belly seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis), so I can’t say that flash photography doesn’t impact on all seahorse species. However, some work we did in PNG involved photo ID of the pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti), and there was no impact on this species either. “I found that flash photography had no significant impact on seahorses’ behaviour, movements and longevity. In my humble opinion, photography poses no harm to seahorses. However, photographers touching and moving seahorses and their habitats is a completely different story!”