Another busy week has passed here at Wakatobi Dive Resort and there have been some highs and lows in the pygmy group on the House Reef.
It was cigars all around early in the week when I was lucky enough to be present at the birth of a new generation of Denise’s pygmy seahorses (Hippocampus denise). I had predicted the time and date of the birth based on the expected gestation period of the species (which I figured out a couple of years ago) and the timing of social activities in seahorses.
I entered the water at first light to catch the birth and was quickly rewarded in seeing the heavily pregnant male moving from the area where he and his mate sleep to a current-prone part of the gorgonian coral. He soon settled and began popping out babies, which are only a few millimetres in length but fully formed in every way.
The first “contraction” resulted in half a dozen babies being shot out from the brood pouch within his body cavity. During gestation, they are curled-up to allow many young to fit in the tiny brood pouch. Moments after birth, they unfurl and begin to swim.
After the first group were born, the father re-inflated his belly with a little with sea water. An instant later, he hunched over and pushed out several more young. After about ten minutes the whole brood of over a dozen young were released into the ocean, never to be seen again by the parents.
The young are dark in colour to help camouflage them as they float off in the water column to a new gorgonian coral. After the arduous event the wrinkled and probably exhausted father returned to his mate and the pair conducted ten minutes of courtship dances to reaffirm their bond.
After all this excitement early in the week, I was devastated on returning to the gorgonian a couple of days later to find the coral significantly disfigured due to unusually strong currents. Worse, the female of the pair was missing!
I had returned to observe the pair’s daily courtship rituals, which occur at the same time every day, but the male was clearly missing his mate. He waited some time in the area of the gorgonian coral where they engaged in their courtship ritual each day, but soon seemed to realise his mate wasn’t coming.
He then set out in search of her, swimming all around the gorgonian, stopping to look on the other side of the coral. Eventually he returned to the same spot where the couple slept each night, but alas, the female was not there. Without the protection of a gorgonian coral, a bright pink pygmy seahorse would be easy prey, and unfortunately, there are no other potential hosts within tens of metres of this group.
So I’m sad that this week’s update reads a little like a Greek tragedy, but at least a new generation of pygmies is now out populating new corals. Aside from pygmies, I found a couple of stunning nudibranchs that I’ve never seen before (that doesn’t actually happen very often), a group of eight eagle rays passed very close to me (but of course no pictures since my wide-angle lens rarely gets a workout when I’m doing pygmy work!) and I’m green with envy that the guests of the resort’s liveaboard, the Pelagian, had a close encounter with a tiger shark!
If you would like to follow more up to the moment snapshots of my daily activities, I am on Twitter with the user name Rich_Underwater and I have created a FaceBook group dedicated to my little friends called ‘Pygmy Seahorse Fans’.