Ocean Realm Images Flow – Newsletter 2017

Ocean Realm Images Flow – Newsletter 2017

2017 has been full of ups and downs.  It was personally challenging, with the sudden passing of my father at the end of 2016, but thankfully full of professional highs and amazing animal encounters.

The year started off on a trip that I organised for dear friends, Ned and Anna DeLoach, Wendy Brown and Yann Alfian around southern Australia.  I planned a road trip that included hunting for leafy seadragons and pyjama squids in South Australia, scouring the rich jetties of Melbourne for weedy seadragons and the world’s largest seahorses and hunting the cold temperate muck dives of the Derwent Estuary in Hobart for Critically Endangered spotted handfish.  Lastly, we headed up to Port Stephens for more temperate water muck diving.  We all donned our drysuits for the first time on this trip and had great fun trying to master these contraptions.  It was certainly a learning curve, not helped by many of our dives taking place in just a few metres of water!

Same URL as before, but entirely reimagined.  There is much more detail about trips, pygmies and higher resolution images to peruse.  It’s still a work in progress, but do have a look: www.OceanRealmImages.com

In May, I headed to Tampa University for the third international SyngBio conference, which was a meeting of the world’s seahorse and pipefish researchers.  It was great to meet this fantastic bunch of folk from across the world, and I was honoured to be invited to give the keynote speech ‘Seahorses and Beyond’ at the Tampa Aquarium for donors and attendees of the conference. I shared images and stories of little known and new species that I have been lucky enough to encounter from around the world. 

At the end of the conference, there was also a meeting of the fifteen or so members of the IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish Stickleback Specialist Group that I was invited to join last year.  During this meeting, which was the first for many of us, we began planning a global seahorse and pipefish conservation action plan.  I was appointed head of the subgroup tasked with raising the profile of syngnathid conservation issues along with Drs Helen Scales and Heather Mason-Jones. This is something that will be pressing on in 2018.

Late in 2017, I also was appointed as Global Pygmy Seahorse Expert for iSeahorse.  If you haven’t heard of it, iSeahorse is a fantastic citizen science program that uses data collected by divers and snorkelers about the syngnathids that they have encountered.  Please go and have a look at their website about the information you can collect to help this cause.  The data they have already collected has helped to extend the known range of many species and has given us a much better idea of global seahorse hotspots.  Adding data to iSeahorse, I helped to extend the known range of Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse by 1,000 or so kilometres north to the Izu Islands in the cool waters off Japan which was quite the surprise.  It just shows that there is still lots for us to discover about our oceans and iSeahorse is helping us to discover it.

I have also done some fun public talks this year, in addition to the one at Tampa Aquarium. I spoke at the Zoological Society of London to the London Ocean Group about my pygmy seahorse research in June.  Again, I presented two talks in October at DIVE 2017, the British Dive Show at the NEC Birmingham.  The first was about my forthcoming trip with Dive Worldwide to the Philippines in 2019, and the second about observing and photographing natural history behaviour underwater without disturbing the animals in question.  The latter being a topic very close to my heart and something I always focus on during my group trips.

In Diver Magazine following the dive show, I was hugely honoured to receive a mention in Dr Alex Mustard’s monthly column.  Alex is a photographer that I’ve always looked up to, I’m sure you’ve seen his work, but check out his amazing photography and many accolades here www.amustard.com:

“The best talk I caught was Dr Richard Smith’s ‘How to Capture Reef Life Au Naturel’ extolling the virtues and benefits of photographing marine life on its terms. 
Richard’s argument was that those photographers who attempt to stage marine-life shots, don’t just risk harming the creatures, but also eradicate any chance of observing fascinating and photogenic natural behaviours, a point that Richard lavishly reinforced with his images.”
Dr Alex Mustard, Diver Magazine, December issue 2017.

Our Beloved Seas, the trips that I arrange and lead with Wendy Brown, had another fantastic year in 2017.  We welcomed a full complement of 18 guests on each of our two trips to Triton Bay, West Papua in March/April 2017 aboard Dewi Nusantara.  The first started in Sorong and headed down to Kaimana.  The second started in Kaimana and ended up in Ambon.  These both gave us great access to Triton Bay, whilst also adding some additional crossing sites which gave us chance to explore a bit and see some other highlights, such as the stunning Momon Waterfalls, whale sharks at Triton’s bagans and to see Jamal’s dottyback (Manonichthys jamali), which I’d longed to see for some time.

In September, we chartered Damai II for back to back explorations around the rarely visited Sangeang volcano, north west of Komodo.  These were the first of our new ‘Muck Magic’ series of trips especially tailored for muck divers, focusing on the critter life of the area.  They were such a huge success, with another full complement at 12 guests per trip, that we have planned Muck Magic III to the Philippines’ Anilao in April 2019.  We had some real highlights on these Sangeang trips, mine being Renny’s Flasher wrasse found only around Komodo and Coleman’s melibe (Melibe colemani), of which I found three.

Again this year, I hosted an ‘Expert Led Trip’ for Dive Worldwide.  This time to Raja Ampat aboard the Indo Siren.  Sixteen of us explored this magical area and did some outstanding dives with some very exciting finds.  My favourite was a tiny tunicate-living amphipod that I found pugnaciously poking his head out of a Polycarpa sea squirt, apparently protecting his young with fearsome thorny appendages. 

Mid-year I headed to Siladen Resort, in the Bunaken National Park off North Sulawesi in Indonesia.  I gave a series of marine life lectures to the guests there, and explored the reefs around Bunaken for the first time.  I had some very interesting finds, perhaps my favourite being a red form of Halimeda ghost pipefish that seems fairly common in the area.  I also found a flame angelfish off an area to the north east of Siladen Resort.  These stunning fish are common around the Central Pacific, but don’t appear to have been recorded from Indonesia before. After Siladen, I spent ten days at the new Dive Into Lembeh, again giving marine life lectures to the resident guests.  Having been to Lembeh Strait many times before, I really enjoyed the space and setting of the resort at the northern end of the strait, plus of course the bountiful creatures I encountered.


Wendy and I have recently added four brand new expeditions to the 2020 roster.  I know this seems terribly far away, but time flies and we will be announcing these trips in the coming months. Our 2018 trips are almost full (just two spots left!) and 2019 is going the same way.  There are more details about our upcoming trips below, or click here.  If you’d like to join us on any of these trips please contact Wendy or myself for more information.

2018 |
23rd July – 1st August 2018 (9 nights) – 1 x female share space available
Our trips are all but sold out for 2018.  We have just one single female share space on each of our two charters of Dewi Nusantara in July/August.  The first of these trips will be exploring Mapia Island, which is 100 nautical miles north of Manokwari on the north coast of Papua into the remote Pacific. 

3-13th August 2018 (10 nights) – 1 x female share space available
Again, with just one female share space remaining, this second charter heads into Cenderawasih Bay in search of the many endemic fishes and to see the fabled whale shark aggregations. 

2019 |
25th March – 5th April 2019 (13 day packages including flights from UK)
Following the success of my Dumaguete Dive Festival as an expert led group tour for Dive Worldwide in 2016, we have planned another for March/April 2019. We are not arranging this one, so for more information please follow the link above or contact Sales@DiveWorldwide.com

ANILAO, PHILIPPINES – ‘MUCK MAGIC III’ | Philippines at Buceo Resort
7 – 14th April 2019 (7 nights) – 3 x Deluxe Rooms available
Anilao is the Philippines answer to Lembeh Strait or Milne Bay, but like every dive area has its own peculiarities.  I have found Anilao to be one of the richest area’s I’ve dived for nudibranchs.  It’s the only place I have ever seen Allen’s Miamira (Miamira alleni, previously Ceratosoma alleni) and an amazing undescribed Thecacera, whilst it also has bountiful other muck critters such as hairy frogfish, mimic octopus, pygmy seahorses and flamboyant cuttlefish.  We have taken the whole of Buceo Resort, which is located towards the tip of the peninsula and closest to the underwater action!

TUBBATAHA REEF, PHILIPPINES | Philippines, aboard Philippine Siren
14 – 22nd April 2019 (8 nights) – 1 x female share space available
I had a charter to Tubbataha in 2014 and have been keen to go back ever since.  Tubbataha really is something very special.  Whilst being at the heart of the Coral Triangle (the area around southeast Asia with the world’s highest marine biodiversity), the abundance of marine megafauna is very high.  On one dive I counted 21 sharks on my last trip, which is unheard of in other areas.  The two atols that make up Tubbataha are World Heritage protected, and unreachable due to their remote location so over six months of the year.  It really is the last megafaunal wilderness of southeast Asia.

SAUMLAKI TO AMBON ‘SOUTH TO NORTH I’, INDONESIA | Indonesia, aboard Dewi Nusantara
23rd October – 4th November 2019 (11 nights) – 2 Deluxe Cabins, 1 female & 1 male share space available
Indonesia obviously holds a very special place in our hearts, and between us we have many many thousands of dives across the country.  We are always looking for something different and new to offer our guests and are excited to offer these exciting itineraries for 2019.  Starting in the Forgotten Islands, we will sail across the stunning and remote Banda Sea to the Muck Mecca of Ambon.  Think blue water, tiny islets with possible hammerhead schools, the fabled snake island and many other unique creatures.

5th – 15th November 2019 (10 nights) – 1 male share space available
Heading north from Ambon we will visit Ceram (Seram), Pulau Obi and then up to Halmahera.  Halmahera has been on my wish list for years.  It has its own Bird of Paradise, Wallace’s Standardwing, and a new endemic walking shark (Hemiscyllium halmahera) plus many other unique fishes.  This will really be something quite different too, and even very different from the previous trip.  I can’t wait!  Just one male share space is available for this one, so hurry.

2020 | COMING SOON! Please email me if you’d like to join our trip mailing list



Throughout 2017 I wrote many articles for various magazines around the world.  I continued my column ‘Species’ in Sport Diver Magazine in the United States, as well as contributing lots of content for their Bizarre issue.  I also added more ‘Natural History Notes’ to my series on the Bird’s Head Seascape website.  I’ve also written the following stand-alone features, among others:

I am always on the hunt for new and exciting beasties under the sea, so I thought as a final whimsy I would share my top five new finds of 2017.  After 3,500 dives there is still so much to see.  This is why I keep diving and we always make a donation through our trips to help preserve our amazing oceans.

  1. New Zealand Pygmy Pipehorse (New genus and species!) – Northern North Island, New Zealand
  2. Renny’s Flasher Wrasse (Paracheilinus rennyae) – Komodo, Indonesia
  3. Jamal’s Dottyback (Manonichthys jamali) – Triton Bay, Indonesia
  4. Tunicate Amphipod (Leucothoe sp.) – Raja Ampat, Indonesia
  5. Coleman’s Melibe (Melibe colemani) – Komodo, Indonesia

I have some exciting plans in 2018, some of which I can’t yet announce but, trust me, they’re exciting!  I have announcements about public talks in new parts of the world for me, scientific research that I’m looking forward to sharing and of course new group trips for you to join and lots of publications in the pipeline.

I can tell you that I have been invited to join The Underwater Tour. I will be joining three other underwater photographers (Jurgen Freund, Jason Isley and Darren Jew) to tour four Australian state capitals over four days in May.  You can now book tickets, so come along and hear us!

Wednesday 9 May        Brisbane, Queensland Multicultural Centre

Thursday 10 May          Perth, Kim Beazley Lecture Theatre, Murdoch University

Friday 11 May                Melbourne, Kino Cinema, Collins Place, CBD

Saturday 12 May           Sydney, The Guthrie Theatre, University of Technology

2018 also sees the start of my new column in Scuba Diver Magazine: ‘Inside Ocean’.  The first was just published and is all about mouth-brooding cardinalfishes.

In a few weeks we are heading to the Galapagos Islands for sold out back to back charters aboard Galapagos Sky liveaboard.  We’re all really excited about these trips, and something rather different than a Coral Triangle dive trip.

Finally, if you’d like to hear what I’m up to on a more regular basis, I suggest you check out my FaceBook page | www.facebook.com/OceanRealmImages

Richard Attends a Seahorse Biology Conference

Richard Attends a Seahorse Biology Conference

Something that I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year now is the SyngBio conference.  Last week I was at the University of Tampa on the west coast of Florida to attend the meeting, which was the third of its kind.  Researchers, zoo aquarists and other professionals from around the world, who work with syngnathids (Seahorses, pipefishes and their relatives), formed the 100 plus attendees.

Although I attended the full four days of lectures and seminars, I was invited as a keynote speaker at the ‘Scientific Storytelling’ evening event that was held at The Florida Aquarium on Monday 15th May.  Besides floating around on a boat in remote Papua, it was probably one of the most amazing places I have ever done a talk.  My podium was directly in front of a huge aquarium window, with sand tiger sharks, huge turtles and moray eels all going about their business behind me.

It has been a few years since I finished my PhD ‘The Biology and Conservation of Gorgonian-associated Pygmy Seahorses’ but the highlight of the SyngBio conference was finally meeting the researchers that I’d cited so many times during my work.  Honestly, I was a little intimated to meet some of them.  Forget those Kardashian folk, these people are real celebrities!  In reality, I have rarely met such an amazing bunch of people.  The collective drive and passion was truly inspiring.  There are sure to be some interesting projects that will come from the meeting, which I know was the motivation for getting the world’s syngnathid researchers together initially.

Apart from my talk, the other main reason for my visit to SyngBio was to attend the first meeting of the IUCN Seahorse and Pipefish Specialist Group, which was formed last year.  This group is part of the Species Survival Commission and, as the global authorities on these fishes, the group’s main aim is to ensure that their wild populations are healthy and well-managed.  I was very honoured to be invited to join this small group of fifteen or so members last year.  We gathered on the fifth day of the conference and worked on putting together a Species Action Plan for these animals.  The fruits of that will become available over the coming months.

I was very kindly sponsored to attend SyngBio by the HW Hoover FoundationProject Seahorse and a donation from
our own Our Beloved Seas (Wendy and I always donate to a conservation organisation from our trips).

Please stay posted for updates via my Facebook page or here.  If you’re a diver and want to help, you can register any of your seahorse sightings around the world through iSeahorse, more here.

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT4: The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat)

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT4: The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat)

For many people, one of the main attractions of the Bird’s Head Seascape is the pygmy seahorse (well I like to think so at least).  Certainly, Raja has amongst the highest density and diversity of these diminutive fishes on the planet.  If you haven’t seen one yet, they almost defy belief. It is easy to list any number of unusual features about them: a horse-like head ending in a puckered mouth, a monkey-like prehensile tail and eyes that move about independently.  From the tip of its pug-like snout to the tip of its stretched out tail, the largest can only just reach across a US quarter.  Even stranger than all of this is their reproduction where extraordinarily devoted fathers become pregnant and strict monogamy is exhibited between life-long partners.

I was recently on a trip exploring Raja Ampat aboard the Arenui, joining a cruise as resident pygmy seahorse expert.  Several years ago, I completed the first research on the biology of pygmy seahorses for my PhD thesis and was excited to spend a trip dedicated to these miniature fishes.  Five of the six described species of pygmies have been named since the turn of this millennium, which explains why there has been so little research on them.  During the trip aboard Arenui, I gave a series of lectures about my findings and the area’s astounding marine life in general.  We were lucky to see three of the area’s four species during the trip and there was great engagement from the guests who enjoyed hearing of the soap opera-like social lives of pygmies.

Pygmy Seahorses of the Bird’s Head Seascape:

Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti)| Bargibant’s pygmy was the first species to be discovered.  A researcher at the Noumea Museum in New Caledonia accidentally found the first pair when he collected a gorgonian coral for the museum’s collection.  The species was named after him in 1970, but divers weren’t regularly seeing them until the 90’s.  Bargibant’s pygmies only live in association with Muricella gorgonians and are covered in tiny bumps that mimic the coral’s closed polyps.

Denise’s (H. denise)| This is another gorgonian-living, and commonly seen species in Raja Ampat.  They can be distinguished from the closely related Bargibant’s species, by their more slender shape and longer snout.  They are also much more cosmopolitan than Bargibant’s: so far I have found them living on ten different types of gorgonians.  As a result of them inhabiting such a variety of habitats, their colours and surface textures are much more variable than Bargibant’s.  I have seen various hues of yellow, red, pink and even white.  Raja Ampat is also known for an, otherwise rare, red and white variety that inhabits Melithaea gorgonians.


Pontoh’s (H. pontohi)| In 2008, the two species of free-living white and brown pygmies were given the names, Hippocampus pontohi and H. severnsi respectively.  However, it appears that scientists may have jumped the gun.  Genetic evidence has since shown that they actually represent two colour forms of a single species.  The name ‘Severn’s’ is being dropped and Pontoh’s will be retained into the future.  Like many seahorses, this new evidence shows just how much variability there can be within a single species of seahorse.  Camouflage is so important to pygmies that they generally match their surroundings very closely.  White ones are most often seen around Halimeda algae, and brown ones around hydroids.

Satomi’s (H. satomiae)| This is the least common of the Bird’s Head’s pygmies, and in fact is currently only known from Indonesia.  It is also the smallest pygmy, not even reaching across a dime.  Very little is know about this species, but it seems to become active around dusk and is generally found slightly deeper than the other free-living species.  When I have seen them, they’ve often been attached to soft corals and hydroids beneath a large over hang.  There are beige and dark brown colour forms, and all are very active swimmers.

Photographing Pygmy Seahorses:

Sometimes it can a bit of a double-edged sword leading a trip that encourages people to interact with and photograph pygmies. I am always very keen to encourage non-invasive interactions where we can enjoy and capture images of them, without causing stress or harm.  The take-home messages I hope to promote are there should be absolutely no touching of the pygmy or their gorgonian, and to limit the number of strobe-lit images.  In fact, this subject was part of my PhD research and the findings are available as a code of conduct document that helps us to avoid certain behaviours that cause direct stress to the fish.

Recording your observations:

Relatively recently Project Seahorse, the world’s largest seahorse conservation organisation, began a citizen science initiative called iSeahorse.  This is designed primarily for who are able to record their seahorse sightings.  This includes pygmy seahorses, and the big ones too.  Next time you are diving and spot a seahorse, please record and log your observation.  You can check out the website to learn about the kind of information that is valuable to them.  I used iSeahorse to register my find of a Bargibant’s pygmy near Tokyo, which extended their known geographic range by hundreds of miles northwards.

Raja Ampat is one of the few pleases where you can see four of the six species of pygmy seahorse.  It’s hardly surprising, given the extraordinarily high biodiversity of the area and it’s fantastic level of protection.  Just remember, whilst enjoying pygmy seahorses please ensure not to disturb them.

Links to Previous Blogs:

PART ONE | In Appreciation of Damsels

PART TWO | Craving Cryptic Crustaceans

PART THREE |Sinister Hitchhikers

PART FIVE | Raja Rarities

By Dr Richard Smith | Originally written for BirdsHeadSeascape.com Science & Conservation Blog

Scientific Publication on Pygmy Seahorse Habitat Specialisation and Population Structure

Scientific Publication on Pygmy Seahorse Habitat Specialisation and Population Structure

My scientific publication on the habitat specialisation and population structure of gorgonian-associated pygmy seahorses has just been published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series (Link to the MEPS page):


Smith RE, Grutter AS & Tibbetts IR (2012).  Extreme habitat specialisation and population structure of two gorgonian-associated pygmy seahorses.  Marine Ecology Progress Series 444: 195-206


The study was conducted on the two species of pygmy seahorse, Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti) and Denise’s species (H. denise), which require a living gorgonian coral for their survival.  The main findings of my study are below in the paper’s abstract but I’ve also written some of the study’s important findings below.

– Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti) and Denise’s pygmy seahorses (H. denise) have some of the lowest densities of any unexploited seahorse populations studied thus far.
– Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse is an extreme habitat specialist, being found exclusively in association with a single genus of gorgonian coral, Muricella spp.
– Denise’s pygmy is a relative generalist as it is found in association with at least eight genera of gorgonian corals.
– It is possible to distinguish between male and female pygmy seahorses by examining the area at the base of the abdomen where males have a small slit-like opening to the brood pouch (figure b) and females have a raised, circular urinogential pore (figure a) (see image).


Sex discrimination in pygmy seahorses



I will be joining the boutique liveaboard Arenui in February 2016 (5-16th February) for a special pygmy seahorse cruise that will take in the best of Raja Ampat, Indonesia.  This is one of my favourite areas to dive and certainly one of the very best places in the world to see pygmy seahorses.  I have seen five of the seven described species here; Bargibant’s, Denise’s, Pontohi’s, Satomi’s and Severn’s.  I will be giving marine life talks, which will include my work on pygmies for my PhD research.  For more information about this trip, please download the flyer attachment below or CONTACT ME HERE.


Dr Richard Smith Special Pygmy Seahorse CruiseDr Richard Smith Special Pygmy Seahorse CruiseSetting sail aboard the Arenui from Sorong in West Papua, Indonesia, over the following twelve days (11 nights), we will explore the dive sites of the mega-diverse Raja Ampat.  Northern Raja Ampat has some unique dive sites, where Richard has observed several previously undocumented pygmy seahorse behaviours. The south too has a special red and white colour form of Denise’s pygmy that is typical to this area. Each day brings new adventures and new animals in Raja Ampat. As well as pygmy seahorses, we will encounter many of the endemic fishes of the area, and will of course visit manta cleaning stations.  Critters aside, Raja Ampat has some of the most pristine reefs on the planet for us to enjoy!


Diver – $6,640.00 (USD) per person (please see flyer for inclusions and exclusions)

Payment Policy and Deposit – A 30% non-refundable deposit reserves a place, with the remaining fee payable in full 90 days prior to departure.


Bookings – for bookings and/or with any questions, please contact Richard.

Attachment: Southern Raja and Kofiau Trip January 2016.pdf

The Japanese Pygmy Seahorse – Hippocampus sp.

The Japanese Pygmy Seahorse – Hippocampus sp.

The Japanese pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus sp, (known locally as 日本のピグミータツノオトシゴ or Japapigu) is an, as yet, undescribed species of true pygmy seahorse found, as the name suggests, in Japan.  They appear to be closely related to Coleman’s, Pontoh’s and Severn’s species, and like these other species, are not found living in close association with a specific host such as a gorgonian or soft coral.

The species is characterised, and distinguished from the other free-living pygmies, by a reticulate pattern of white lattice over the body, which often has a black spot within it.  The body colouration is brown, beige, to pink and whitish.

They inhabit subtropical and temperate reefs from southern to the central west of Japan.  The Izu islands of Miyake and Hachijo are good locations to find these elusive seahorses, as well as Kushimoto and Sagami Bay.  I saw many in the 8-15 metre range in protected areas, where they were living amongst the algal turf and small hydroids.

Given that they are yet to receive a scientific name, it is unsurprising that very little is known about their biology or conservation.  This is true of all the free-living pygmy seahorses, which are yet to receive a research focus.  My work on the gorgonian-associated pygmy seahorses is the only research on these species’ biology yet to be carried out.

You can see some of my Japanese pygmy seahorses by following this link.