Diver Vassilis Mendoyannis was part of an archaeological team making an underwater inspection of the mining port in Stratoni, on the Halkidiki peninsula. Taking a detour to come out of the sea, he suddenly came upon a seahorse.
‘I was ecstatic,’ he says, ‘since, despite many years as a diver, I’d never come upon one of these creatures in the sea. Then we saw a second, and a third… The place was full of them! It was amazing.’
Seahorses are fish. They live in water, breath through gills and have a swim bladder. However, unlike other fish, they have an exo-skeleton. They eat small crustacea, sucking up the food through their snout which is like a mini vacuum cleaner. An adult eats 30-50 itmes a day. Baby seahorses, which are amusingly called seahorse fry, eat a staggering 3000 pieces of food per day!
Mendoyannis returned to the spot a few months later, and again met with a plethora of seahorses. When he asked local fishermen about it they confirmed their presence in the area, showing him many that had got caught in their nets.
This was an important discovery, since seahorses are a vulnerable species, despite being masters of camouflage: they’re able to change color almost instantly and can grow appendages which make them resemble seaweed. However, they are slow swimmers and are easily entangled in nets, and their numbers in Greek waters have been steadily dwindling. So, researchers at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research were interested in finding out how that particular spot supported such an important population.
Then, in 2010, a bad storm resulted in tons of silt being deposited on the area due to the flooding of a dry stream, burying the eco-system of the sea bottom. After that, the seahorse population was reduced significantly. Being poor swimmers, seahorses use their prehensile tail to grip onto eel grass and other weeds in order to prevent themselves from being washed away by strong currents and waves. All this seaweed had now disappeared.
Mendoyannis came to the rescue. His team created an artificial environment, putting a metal grid on the sea floor to which were attached ropes and fake aquarium plants, giving the seahorses the means to anchor themselves. Results were impressive: the seahorses quickly adopted this artificial sea garden and their numbers started increasing again.
Today the area is still monitored by the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research and the seahorses are being photographed using a special, digital method which allows individuals to be recognized, despite their minuscule size. This will allow for various studies to be conducted, and a special documentary Is planned about the presence of the species in Greek seas.
‘Seahorses are are attractive and romantic creatures,’ says Mendoyannis, whose friends tease him about having fallen in love with the species. He believes that is why is why the local fishermen reacted positively to the idea of protecting the area.
The Greek name for a seahorse is hippocampus (ιππόκαμπος) which is a combination of the word ‘hippos’ (horse) and ‘campos’ (Campi in Greek mythology was a sea-monster, whose body was half human, half snake.) Ancient writers like Pliny thought the hippocampus had therapeutic properties, and, to this day, the traditional medicine trade (TCM) industry takes approximately 150 million seahorses per year from the wild for use mainly as natural aphrodisiacs. There appears to be a new trend for dosing Chinese children with seahorse pills in the belief it will spur growth. Seahorses have also been proven to have high levels of collagen, which is encouraging Chinese women to use them as a substitute for Botox. All this, as well as the capture of seahorses to make tourist souvenirs and to display in aquariums, has been endangering the survival of the species.
When I was a child, I had a dried seahorse given to me by some fisherman. It was one of my most treasured possessions. Seahorses are unique in that the female transfers her eggs to the male, who thus becomes ‘pregnant’ and gives birth to loads of tiny offspring. Below I’ve included an amusing and rather astonishing video.