It’s almost like a rodeo out there.
Seahorses used to be fairly uncommon sights in Cayman, but over the past year or so, divers seem to be finding them more and more. At one West Bay dive site alone, within yards of each other, three of the shy creatures were spotted this week.
As word of the sightings of two of the long-snouted seahorses – one black and one yellow – spread over the weekend, lots of divers showed up at Divetech at Lighthouse Point, hoping to get a look at or a photo of the creatures, which were in about 25 feet of water.
Then, on Monday, diver Cherie-Anne Henderson Dam figured if there were two seahorses, there might be three, and kept her eyes peeled as she made her way back to shore at the end of the dive. Sure enough, she came across another yellow seahorse with its tail wrapped around a piece of coral in 11 feet of water.
She told the Compass she plans to make another dive there soon, as “I bet if there are three, there are definitely four.”
There are a plethora of theories as to why seahorses seem to be found more often these days in local waters, from being brought on the blankets of sargassum that have been floating ashore, to less boat traffic and divers due to the COVID-related border closure, to simply because there are more macro photographers heading underwater and coming across them while looking for even tinier creatures.
Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, director of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute based in Little Cayman, in response to a query from the Compass on the recent abundance of seahorses in local waters, said, “My immediate suspicion is that there has been a relatively large surge in macro-photography lately by the local dive community.”
She said, “This increased focus on finding tiny things, rather than pointing out large things to guided divers, might be one of the main reasons we are seeing more, which means there might not actually be more seahorses, but we are just seeing them more frequently.”
She noted that, coincidentally, frogfish have also been spotted quite frequently this year. Those tiny creatures had rarely, if ever, been recorded as being present in Cayman, but macro-photographers have been shooting them regularly recently.
“The second most likely reason, in my opinion, would be reduced traffic, both divers and boats, which results in animals that might normally hide being out in the open, which again would mean that the numbers might not have changed, but they are more visible,” the CCMI director said.
“The final reason would be an increase in recruitment,” she said. “Recruitment is the influx of new individuals to a community, typically as juveniles, and varies annually and seasonally. It may be that there was a very successful reproductive year/season that resulted in a larger than normal pulse of baby seahorses settling onto our reefs. Without any data on this, I can’t even begin to speculate if/why we would see increased recruitment this year. This last scenario, however, would in fact imply that the increased sightings correspond with increased numbers of seahorses.”
Goodbody-Gringley said she thought all these scenarios are “possible” and “positive”.
The three seahorses at Lighthouse Point have garnered plenty of interest in recent days, and are possibly the most famous sea creatures in Cayman right now, with dozens of photos featuring in Facebook and Instagram feeds.
Divetech owner Jo Mikutowicz said, based on her observations of diving in Cayman water for more than 10 years, “I do feel we see more of them after sargassum rolls in”.
“I think it provides a nice environment for them to live in and when it washes up on our shores so do they,” she said.
Mikutowicz said seahorses form a “pair bond” during breeding season – from February to October – “so during those months when you find one, you can usually find two”.
She figures that, as they blend into their surroundings so well, they’ve probably been in Cayman waters all along, but now “there are so many trained eyes out there looking for them”.
Sergio Coni, who runs Don Foster’s Dive in George Town, and who often leads guided dives where he points out tiny underwater animals, also supports the theory that seahorses appear to be more prevalent because a new cadre of macro-photographers are learning to search for and find creatures.
“There is more time spent within a smaller area looking at every detail and enhancing visual recognition of shapes and objects – in particular, smaller objects,” he said. “In that aspect, my take is [seahorses] were there all the time; we just swam on top of them.”
He doesn’t think the theories of less boat traffic and fewer divers while the local borders are closed can account for the uptick in seahorse sightings, however, saying, “Other destinations around the world, like the Philippines, Indonesia, and some not so far from here – Blue Heron Bridge in Florida, Bonaire, Honduras – have plenty of seahorses, and boat traffic, divers and pollution as well.”
Coni wonders if perhaps the marine food chain has altered for some reason, making the shallow waters off Cayman a more attractive habitat for seahorses.
“When I think of sea creatures, I think in terms of food that is carried along the water column activating the feeding chain. Perhaps something has changed regarding food availability, like more minute shrimp, and seahorses find the right environment to thrive,” he said.
Whatever the reason they’re here, each time there’s a new sighting, there’s a frisson of excitement among divers and photographers as word spreads like wildfire over social media and Whatsapp dive groups. Specific directions are sought and swapped, along with information on the precise depth at which the animals were seen and a detailed description of the surrounding corals and other landmarks.
As Goodbody-Gringley puts it, “Increased sightings of unique and special creatures not only makes diving in Cayman even more exciting and appealing, but it also suggests that despite all of the challenges facing our coral reefs, there is still hope for the little guy.”