Following our earlier post about the Sydney Seahorse Release, we speak with Masters research student Brooke ‘Bee’ Kyle, who is monitoring their progress. Bee tells us about her lifelong love for seahorses, and how Sydney divers can help the new inhabitants of Chowder Bay.
DP: What sparked your interest in seahorses?
“I started my degree in Bay of Plenty New Zealand where we have Hippocampus abdominalis, one of the largest species of seahorse in the world. After that project I fell in love with seahorses, they are the most incredible sea creatures, with such character and personality. I then moved on to work at SEALIFE Kelly Tarltons Aquarium in Auckland while researching the Hippocampus kuda, a tropical yellow seahorse. I loved working with them. Seahorses are by far my favourite animal on the planet.”
DP: When did you first get involved in this particular breeding program?
“Seahorse expert Amanda Vincent, who runs an organisation called Project Seahorse, put me in touch with my now supervisor, David Harasti. I moved over from New Zealand just before the end of the breeding program, got to tag the juvenile seahorses alongside my supervisor and was part of the release of the juvenile Whites seahorse into the wild. I am now monitoring them and this is the part crucial to my masters’ thesis, collecting data on how they are doing in the wild.”
DP: What are the key factors to the success of this project?
“There are a few key factors to this project being a success; their survival and growth rates, brood pairings and reproduction. I am hoping to see a survival rate greater than 20 per cent. Another aspect is reproduction, if we get a low survival rate but they are breeding and giving birth to live young that would be a huge success as it is adding to the wild population. Another thing I’m hoping for is to see our aquarium raised juveniles pair up with wild seahorses. To see aquarium raised juveniles able to integrate into the wild population would be a huge success.”
DP: What do we know about seahorse populations in Sydney historically? When did the decline become significant?
“Whites seahorse (Hippocampus whitei) is one of four seahorse species that occupy NSW waters. They are endemic to the east coast of Australia, occurring commonly in Sydney Harbour giving them the other common name, the Sydney seahorse. The species is fairly common around Sydney and well known to the local dive community, although it has now been classified as endangered due to recent decline.
“The exact size of the seahorse population here is unknown historically but we do know that populations have declined in in Port Stephens and Port Jackson in the last decade. The main reason their population has declined is the loss of habitat across their limited range in eastern Australia. They occur within coastal estuaries, areas often damaged by development and pollution.
“In Port Stephens, an area well-known for Hippocampus whitei sightings, over 90 per cent of the soft coral and sponge habitats have been lost. Coastal estuaries are subject to man-made degradation such as the installation of wharfs, moorings, anchors and pollution, as well as things like habitat coverage from sand movement.
“Something that I find so beautiful and interesting about this species specifically is that the Whites seahorse is a monogamous species which pairs for life. Each seahorse couple will find each other every breeding season and remain a couple unless one of them dies. They’ve been shown to even stick by one another, even if the other is sick or injured.
DP: What can divers do to help?
“I have had so many beautiful messages from people in our community wanting to help and asking what they can do. It is so great to see how many divers and people in our community care about these animals, it truly warms my heart and makes me even more motivated to get the data needed for this to be a success.
“Firstly, the most crucial and important part that divers can do to help is by giving seahorses space and not touching or handling them. They are so beautiful and we all want to get nice and close but we also need to remember that they, like us, need down time, space and rest.
“If divers see rubbish, fishing line, lures, plastic or any other pollution, please collect it. This helps seahorses out a lot as all of these things they can get caught and entangled in it. Local diver and underwater photographer Jayne Jenkins has come up with a great method I would love to share. Jayne takes a plastic bottle down with her, puts any lures or hooks inside the bottle and then any fishing line she finds is wrapped around the bottle. If you are going to do this though, please be mindful of the surrounding environment. Untangle the fishing line and make sure not to yank or pull as this will damage the surrounding environment. The cages are covered in lures and line so removing this will not only help the babies but will help me with my surveying too.
“Lastly, If you are able to get photos of the tagged juveniles we released, (they are tagged on each side), obviously without touching them or handling them in any way, then please do so. If you manage to get photos please send them to me as it can help me ID them and add data to my collection.”
DP: What should divers know if visiting Chowder Bay?
If divers are visiting Chowder Bay what I would like them to know is to please be mindful of the seahorses and how many people are currently visiting them. I am surveying twice weekly which is an invasive process, so please be mindful they need their space.
“Secondly please do not touch, grab or handle the animals in any way as this is a violation of law and ethics. I know most people going out are absolutely wonderful, taking beautiful photos and sharing their experiences with me which is amazing. Have fun, be safe, be mindful of one another and the seahorse babies.”
Divers interested in sending photos to Bee can do so using this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org