Thursday, May 17, 2001
Because to be a seahorse, it seems, is to be infinitely patient and trusting in the rightness of the universe. A seahorse does not despair that everything moves more quickly than it does. A seahorse accepts its limitations and sticks with its strategy, which is to nod hypnotically and flare its lips at brine shrimp chugging saucily past, steadfast in the belief that eventually shrimp will meet seahorse mouth and dinner will be had. To be a seahorse, it seems, is to be a serene servant to slowpokitude.
This sort of thought is doubtless helped along by a certain kind of spacey New Age music that provides the soundtrack to the Monterey Bay Aquarium''s new seahorse gallery. Nevertheless, these mesmerizing creatures just might usurp the jellyfish as the reigning sultans of psychedelia within the aquarium''s walls.
With their bony, delicate heads and curving tails, seahorses look more like the tiny modern-day descendants of unicorns and chimeras than fishes (the Greeks called them "horsey seamonsters"), and their graceful floating motion reaches directly into the brain''s pleasure center and enchants it.
On an afternoon several weeks before the gallery''s opening, I have the good fortune to be in the seahorse room alone, just me and Yanni and the little monsters. Under the loopy seahorse spell, I am happily veering from tank to tank and gazing in at scenes of miniature perfection. The dwarf seahorses, all of two inches long, encircle their tiny dark gray tails about blades of seaweed and sway. The babies, a quarter-inch tall and white with silvery accents, pose like knick-knacks from Grandma''s china cabinet.
The Pacific seahorses, the longest of them all at 12 inches, are large enough to invite inspection, which is a little spooky because they''re translucent and their independently moving eyes look like the characters'' from the Christmas claymation show Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It becomes obvious when one of them drifts between the gold ropes of kelp that the motion is due to a single flick of the tail and a frantically fluttering dorsal fin on its back. The rig acts like a space suit propeller pak, with pec fins near the gills for steering.
The longsnouts are next, 13 of them hidden among bright red and yellow simulated coral. Though these five-inch-tall dandies are in their speckles right now, they can, like all seahorses, change colors. Because these animals are so slow, their best hope for safety from predators is camouflage, and since these particular seahorses are so safe, aquarium staff has yet to see them perform the magic show. These longsnouts look modest enough, but they''re prodigious breeders--the species-wide record of 1,572 young in one birth belongs to a proud longsnout.
A Bizarre Family Portrait
I am headed for the potbelly seahorses, beautiful animals with bulbous tummies and long tendrils waving from their heads like braids, when the door opens and in walks a group of Pixar employees--here, no doubt, to study up for Finding Nemo, the marine-themed follow-up to the fantastically successful Toy Story 2. They flow in the doorway, an army of slouching brainiacs in T-shirts and khakis.
"Wow. The relaxation tank," one comments, looking around, but these were not the social kids in the school lunchroom, and, instead of excited babble, the room is filled with the low-level hum of brooding concentration as the computer animators gather around the tanks, hands in pockets, to stare at the nodding creatures and nod imperceptibly back, eyeglasses reflecting aquarium light, minds seeking the binary formula for the seahorse dance.
There are other seahorses in the building as well. The rare cape seahorses, found only in three or four bays in South Africa, have recently birthed 400 young. The tiger tails, still in quarantine, will establish the aquarium''s breeding program. Upstairs in the Slough Gallery are bay pipefish, seahorse relatives that resemble long stems of grass. And in the Splash Zone is the leafy sea dragon, another relative with beautiful, swaying leaflike appendages that lend an ornately costumed appearance. Taken together they form a bizarre family portrait.
Aquarist Scott Greenwald painstakingly drilled and glued rocks and installed coral and grasses to replicate the seahorses'' native habitats. He is a learned man, wise in the ways of seahorses, but nothing has prepared him for the questions of an uncomprehending journalist.
"What are they?" I ask, thinking vaguely of evolutionary missteps and crossed DNA strands and twisted branches of family trees.
"They''re teleosts," Greenwald replies. "They''re related to other bony fishes."
"But ... are they like, eels? What did they used to be? What do they come from?"
"They''re bony fishes," Greenwald says again. Other questions seem to draw him out a bit more.
"They just seem like such an innocent little fish," he says when I ask what he likes best about them. "I like their tail, the way they hold on to you. If you''ve ever had a little infant grab your finger, they''ll hold your hand or your pinky. Seahorses do that. You can feel that soft little tissue of their tail."
A lot of people on this planet know what that feels like. All of the seahorses live in warm waters, and all are gathered and sold--some 60 tons a year of them--as ingredients in traditional medicine. Said to treat asthma, heart disease and impotence, they are harvested, dried and shipped from ports the world over. Researchers don''t know the populations of the 32 species of seahorse, but figure that at that rate, they''re probably threatened and perhaps worse. Because of the reliance of some indigenous peoples on the seahorse trade, an organization called Project Seahorse has formed both to teach alternative crafts and to promote sustainable seahorse collection.
As most kids know and most adults have forgotten, among seahorses the male bears and nurtures the young after the female deposits her eggs (via a most perplexingly phallic device) into his brood pouch for fertilization and gestation. As if that''s not exemplary enough behavior, breeding pairs are faithful and greet each other each morning with a balletic dance, turning colors and spiraling upward all intertwined in tender seahorse love or whatever it is, only to part during the day and pursue their own interests, careers, hobbies, what have you. The male hovers about the home territory all day while the female roams far and wide. A most refreshing arrangement.
"Saving Seahorses" debuts Saturday at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row in Monterey) and is open daily from 10am-6pm. Tickets cost $15.95/general, $13.95/seniors and students (with ID), $7.95/children. For more info, call 648-4800.