Snorkelling with seahorses

The Ria Formosa is like a nursing school; it’s full of baby fish

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2015

The Ria Formosa nature reserve is home to the biggest concentration of seahorses in the world. Also, Passeios Ria Formosa’s leaflet boasts there’s a 100% chance of finding them. Plus, they are bright neon green (or so I believed). And I’ve got 20/20 vision. So how hard can it be to be the first one of the group to spot one of these creatures? Pretty difficult as it turns out…

The search starts from the harbour of Fuseta, a small former fishing town in the east Algarve. Our boat heads through the nature reserve for Ilha de Tavira, one of the five natural barriers that protect the south coast of Portugal from the ocean. When arriving on the deserted western tip of the island, guide Tiago Ventura leads us on a 15 minutes’ walk. On the way he points out a gorgeous looking conch, the type of shell people usually bring home as a souvenir. But the only object we take away from the beach today is a broken empty beer bottle, abandoned in the sand by some idiot. As with nearly all endangered animals, human related pollution and habitat loss are some of the reasons why the seahorse population has decreased dramatically in the last decade.

 

 

When the tide is very low, seahorses can sometimes be seen from the beach

Still, the Ria Formosa has all the conditions both the short-snouted Hippocampus Hippocampus and long-snouted Hippocampus Guttulatus need to survive: it’s protected from the waves by barrier islands, there’s no strong current and there’s plenty of sea grass they can attach themselves to. So where is the best place to look exactly? “In the lagoon, right in the first few metres off the coast, just before the water turns green because of the sea grass,” is the answer. What? But that’s very shallow. The water barely comes to my hips. I double check but the spot is right. Apparently, when the tide is extremely low, the fish can sometimes be seen from the beach. Off we go!

 

 

I squeal in delight as it wraps its velvety tail around my finger

Although there are thousands of seahorses in the Ria Formosa, it soon turns out that finding one is easier said than done. Even if you know where to look. Searching for a 12-18cm creature in a 170km² nature reserve is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. Plus, they’re not bright orange like in The Little Mermaid or fluorescent green like Sponge Bob led me to believe. Instead, they’re better camouflaged than the SAS on a recon mission.
While we try our best not to murk up the already cloudy water with our movements, Tiago is the first person to find one. Luckily, he calls us over to admire the little dark green creature in the shallows. I squeal in delight as it wraps its velvety tail around my finger to avoid being swept away by the current (and learn later that touching the seahorses is actually a no go). The secret to discover these fish, Tiago tells us, is keeping calm. Oh, so not point, wave and scream every time you see a suspicious looking bit of sea grass floating by. We try again.

 

 

“Look, I’ve discovered a ray,” our guide calls out a bit later. I approach hesitantly, expecting a creature not unlike the giant stingray that killed Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin back in 2006. But no, it’s a tiny non-venomous fish, about as big as your hand. “Ria Formosa is like a nursing school, full of little fish,” Tiago explains.

 

 

It’s amazing how much marine life you see when you (try very hard to) float

Indeed, after the ray comes a small starfish which leaves a slimy residue on my hands as it moves. Despite the crap visibility I spot hundreds of little crabs scuttling over the sandy sea bottom, half hidden in their shells. There are weird looking sea cucumbers and black ink spraying cuttlefish. All in the shallow bit of water you normally don’t even bother to look at as you jump in. It’s amazing how much marine life you see when you (try very hard to) float.

But no seahorse. One time, I’m sure I’m looking at a camouflaged one, which has a flesh-like colour. It turns out to be my own finger, barely recognisable through the pea soup water. Visibility in the Ria Formosa can’t be guaranteed and today it isn’t that good. However, Tiago has spotted another one and points out the differences that make this brown seahorse identifiable as a short snouted one (it’s a bit smaller and has shorter filaments on its back).

 

It’s like everything in life: practice makes perfect.

After half an hour of snorkelling some of our group have given up the search. They wait in the sun on the shore for our guide to show off his skill, stepping into the water for a closer look when he has found yet another one. I’m still going strong, repeating ‘less moving, more floating’ as a mantra in my head.
But when the boat comes to pick us up again, my own discovery score is still zero. Just one member of our group claims he found a seahorse by himself, “Although it was white, didn’t move and had a strange round shape. But it certainly was one!” Yeah right. Tiago though has discovered at least six, plus the ray. Back in the boat, I press our guide for his secret, thinking I somehow made a classic seahorse spotting mistake. But no. “It’s like everything in life: practice makes perfect,” he smiles. Right, captain, turn this boat around, I’m going back in!

 

 

Saving the seahorses

Make sure your presence doesn’t contribute to added stress to seahorse populations. How? Marine biologist Miguel Correia explains: “There isn’t a code of conduct yet, but in a nutshell, I’d advise snorkelers to mind their fin strokes to avoid hitting seahorses and their habitat. Also, to minimize your impact, avoid handling them, as tempting as it may be.”

From 2001/2002 to 2008/2009 the seahorse population in the Ria Formosa had a dramatic decrease of 94% for Hippocampus guttulatus and 73% for Hippocampus hippocampus. Luckily, this trend seems to have changed. During his recent PhD on seahorse ecology in the Ria Formosa Miguel found an apparent recovery of the populations, but numbers are still well below those recorded in 2001/2002.

Besides field research, there’s an ongoing breeding program since 2007 with the aim of optimizing the breeding protocol for H. guttulatus. It seems the scientists working with the Ria Formosa seahorses are the first research group that has managed to successfully breed this species in captivity with a high survival rate (over 60% and improving). They are currently in the 5th consecutive generation.

Have you seen a seahorse? Contribute to research and conservation by uploading your wild seahorse sightings to iSeahorse, Project Seahorse’s citizen science website and smartphone app. For more information and to upload photos, visit www.iseahorse.org

When to go?

At very low tide, because they’re easier to spot then. The activity can be done all year round, but the water temperature is warmer in the summer months.

Male (yes, you read that right) seahorses give birth in spring time, so if you’re visiting then and are really lucky, you might see tiny baby seahorses swimming out of their daddy’s pouch.

Want to go? Make sure to reserve beforehand to avoid disappointment (by booking online via www.passeios-ria-formosa.com). Exact departure times depend on the tide, as all seahorse observation tours are done at low tide.

The boat leaves from Fuseta harbour, directly next to where the ferries leave from. It’s also possible to do this activity from Olhão.

For whom?

Nature lovers. And anyone keen on discovering fish in their natural habitat. 

As the snorkelling is done in shallow flat water this activity is also suitable for kids.

A mask and snorkel are provided, so just take your bathing suit and some sun cream. However, if you’re the type of person who easily gets cold (or if you’re doing this in the winter months) it might be a good idea to take your own wetsuit and a sweater for the boat ride.

Pictures by Marijke Verschuren

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2015

Posted in This month we try.

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