Day 10: All Creatures Great and Small

Tenth day June 25

Hello, Sunshine…

Another magical day in the Big Island of Hawaii. Spending time here can turn any hardcore city dweller into a nature lover. How can it not? Every day, the sun pulls back the curtain of dawn, beaming like it never left. The birds outserenade each other, filling the air with a cascade of musical notes. Flowers burst forth in an unapologetic spectacle of colors and scents, inviting admiration from bees and passersby alike. Nature flourishes in unabashed abandon.

It is early in the day and I am sitting out here on a private lanai overlooking a spectacular golf course. Ronnie is inside playing his music and getting breakfast ready. Melanie will be creeping up behind me any time now, hoping to startle me with a kiss. Yep, looks like it’s gonna be another day in paradise.

Today, we have decided to tour a seahorse farm. Though I have seen actual seahorses in those huge aquarium centers, the child in me still entertains this fantasy of riding a seahorse while frolicking with mermaids the same way I envision riding the fabled unicorn while forest fairies flit by. I guess some childhood fantasies you never really outgrow…

I admit my fantasies were crushed when I saw the seahorses on the farm. To ride any of them, I would have to turn into Thumbelina. Yet, the experience was a good one, made even more so because of a young, enthusiastic guide whose passion for all marine animals made what could have been a ho-hum tour into an information-laden but poetic foray into the world of seahorses.

To understand why there would be a need for a seahorse farm, our guide explained to us that seahorses were nearing extinction in the wild due to global warming as well to the massive and irresponsible harvesting of them for medicinal as well as entertainment purposes. Chinese merchants usually dry seahorses and pound them into powder, selling them for their supposed aphrodisiac powers. Those that end up in private aquariums soon die off, because the seahorses miss their diet of brine shrimp, and, believe it or not, die from stress. When they are farmed, not only are their numbers replenished, the farm-raised seahorses are hardier than their counterparts in the wild. They are also trained to eat commercially prepared food, thus increasing their chances of survival. Every now and then, they do get treated to live shrimp, which they like to chase around the tank before gobbling them up. Seahorses have no teeth and no stomach. They suck up food through their long snout. Food passes through their digestive system quickly so they must eat almost constantly to stay alive. However, if they eat too much, if that food is alive, it will go in one hole and go swimming out the other in the same form. As my daughter would have said, “Nastyyyy…”

Seahorses are actually bony fish with no scales. Unlike most fish, they swim upright instead of horizontally. Surprisingly, they are poor swimmers, and rest quite often, usually curling their tail around an object like a seaweed so they won’t be swept away. They like to buddy up and swim in pairs, wrapping their tails around each other, kinda like holding hands. The coronet, or little crown, on their head is distinct to that individual, much like a person’s fingerprint. Their eyes can move independently of one another, meaning one can look up and the other turn right, or any which way. This is to maximize their search for food. They also rely on camouflage to help them capture their food as well as to hide them so they can avoid being food themselves.

Their courtship ritual is pretty romantic. For one thing, they are reputed to be monogamous and mate for life. They have the unique distinction of being the only animal species where the male gets pregnant. Their eight-hour courtship dance is a marathon of spinning around, swimming side by side and changing colors. They mate under a full moon, uttering musical sounds while doing so. During mating, female seahorses will deposit their eggs into the pouch of the male who then fertilizes the eggs internally, carrying them until they emerge. When a female seahorse deposits eggs into the male, his body swells up while hers slims down. (I like this part!) During incubation, the male and female meet up daily at sunrise, continuing their flirtatious dance ritual. When the young are ready to be born, they emerge from the male seahorse’s pouch as fully formed miniature seahorses. As soon as the male gives birth, the pair are ready to mate again. Certainly no one can accuse them of not trying to propagate their specie!

Seahorses are known as Stallions of the Sea. A group of them is called a herd. Now the seahorse farm we visited was nothing fancy. On the outside, it was just a plain white building. It is the dedication that these people pour into their work that makes it remarkable. They are really committed to saving seahorses from extinction. Inside the farm were huge blue tanks filled with seahorses in various stages of growth. The newly hatched seahorses were as tiny as tadpoles. ( The guide told us that the “sea monkeys” that were sold in magazine ads years ago were actually baby seahorses. Interesting! ) The teens were separated into male and female quarters. When they mature, a small group of male and female seahorses is placed inside a small tank to see which ones would successfully pair off. As mentioned before, seahorses mate for life. I did find out later that if the other partner dies, the surviving half has been known to seek a replacement. The guide told us that there have been cases of infidelity and even threesomes among these farm- bred ones! Sin verguenza! Because of this, there have been reports of “teen pregnancies” and “mutts of unknown parentage.” (Paging Maury Povich and his DNA test cohorts!) Some seahorses are even sent to Juvenile Hall! Funny ha? (I don’t know what accounts for this behaviour, whether this happens in the wild too or if this is a fluke, but this tidbit had everyone chuckling.) At the end of the tour, we got to see different breeds of seahorses. The hardiest and most popular of these are the mustangs. As a treat, we got to touch them by putting our hands inside the tank. The seahorses would swim towards us and curl their tails around our fingers. It was quite an experience, although in the back of your mind there is always that fear of squishing them too hard or breaking off a piece of its delicate body. Thankfully, as that disclaimer says, no actual seahorses were harmed in the making of this article.

I came in expecting a magical underwater kingdom with decent-sized creatures I can play with. I left realizing that they were no less enchanting because of their diminutive size. As a line goes, “All creatures great and small, the Lord God made them all.” Things are no less tragic or heroic for the tiny and powerless. It matters not our size, shape or color. In the end, we all have one thing in common: We are all God’s creatures. In our day-to-day existence, we struggle to find our way in this world, and hope to leave some good behind when we exit it.

FYI: All photos, including the ones of the seahorses, were taken by my husband. No copyright infringement here :)

One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Harold Cabahug
    Jul 04, 2010 @ 10:56:14 [Edit]

  2. You should see the pygmy seahorses. They are the smallest kind of seahorse, no larger than 2.4cm.
    This piece is close and dear to my heart. As a scuba diver, I love all sea creatures, big or small. I absolutely agree about all creatures being equal, no mater what politics, religion, ethnic background, creed, or size. Applies to humans too!!! :-)

  3. Reply

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