The sea horse would have to be one of natures weirdest and most bizarre animals; a fish that has armour plating scales, sucks its food up through a straw-like snout and has a tail like a monkey that wraps around seaweed to anchor. Interestingly too, it is the male sea horse that gives birth to live young.
Throughout New Zealand and around the world are hundreds of sites where sea horses inhabit calm sheltered bays, hidden amongst clumps of seaweed. They feed on a regular supply of brine shrimp that drift by in the tidal flow. This sea horse garden is little more than an hours drive north of Auckland, adjacent to the wharf at Ti Point at the entrance to Whangateau Harbour.
Since the beginning of the year I had made about six dives at this site for the sole purpose of finding and photographing the sea horse. On these dives I managed, with a lot of time and patience, to find a family of around five to six individuals within a 10 square metre area. Each sea horse appears to be totally different to the next. Some are bright yellow while others are dark brown with black spots and stripes not unlike a giraffes pattern, others are cream coloured with long horns on their head.
Ti Point is an easy dive, best done an hour before high tide as this will bring with it the clearest water; at best up to six metre visibility and at worst one metre. You don’t have to swim far to find the sea horses as they tend to be between the wharf and the first boat mooring towards the entrance of the harbour. However finding them is the trickiest part. They blend in perfectly with the seaweed and it takes a sharp eye to spot the distinctive shape and armoured body that hides within.
On several occasions I have looked over a large stack of seaweed and swum on only to return a short time later to find a sea horse poking its head out of the same stack of weed – frustrating! If you are lucky you may find one clinging to one of the many submerged tree branches from the Pohutukawa trees that hang overhead.
For the underwater photographer the sea horse is a very photogenic animal it has that wow factor that people love. But for a marine animal that does not move very fast and tends to stay in one place, photographing them can be a very frustrating and agonising process.
For example, when a sea horse realises that it has been discovered and is faced with the dome port of a camera only centimetres away from its face, it will do what comes naturally and shy away from the camera. It turns around and sticks its head in the weed to hide, leaving you with the back of its head. Moving around to the other side of the seaweed to recompose will find that the seahorse has turned back around, or worse, has swum down to the sea floor and into the cloud of silt that you have just stirred up with your fins!
It pays to keep an eye on the seahorse while changing your camera setting as I momentarily looked down and upon looking up found that the sea horse had swum off and blended into the seaweed never to been seen again.
But sea horse hunting can be a lot of fun and rewarding. They live in a area that can be dived in most conditions. If the coast is undiveable and you are desperate then this is the place. Its like a treasure hunt with the reward being a glimpse of one of natures most strange yet captivating creations.