Category Archives: Features

Interview with Adrian Shephard from MARINElife

Here at The Seahorse Project our main focus is, of course, seahorses. However, every now and again we like to explore what else is happening in the world of marine conservation. Our most recent discovery was the work of MARINElife, a registered charity that was originally set up in 1995 and known as the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme. MARINElife collect data and aim to develop a growing portfolio of marine mammals and sea-birds, in Europe. Adrian Shephard has been volunteering for the charity for around nine years and is the current Chairman of Trustees. He spoke to us about the charity’s main objectives and why marine conservation is important to them.

Chairman of Trustees for MARINElife, Adrian Shephard. Image via Tom Brereton

What is the main focus of MARINElife?

The primary responsibility of MARINElife is the research and conservation of marine species; primarily whales, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds. We do that through a programme of data collection from both small vessels, large vessels and from the public. We also carry out education and training programmes for the general public and members of the local community, be that angling boats or dive boats, to make them aware of the wildlife on their doorstep and get them involved.

Where do MARINElife carry out their research?             

The work is primarily focused in Northern Europe. We work from the UK but are often on board ‘ships of opportunity’ as we call them, ferries to you and me, and those are sailing from the UK to adjacent countries. We currently operate across ten or eleven ferry routes leaving the UK going to Spain, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and other parts of Scandinavia. We also work with partner organisations who have connections with ferries generating out of other countries across Europe. We work with a group in the Netherlands and smaller organisations across France and Ireland collecting data on whales, dolphins and porpoises. We put that into a larger data set to get a bigger picture about what’s going on in our oceans.

Striped dolphins have been spotted around Spanish waters. Image via marine-life.org.uk

How many people work for MARINElife?

We have a couple of staff members including a development manager which is a full-time position and a director of research,  data manager and survey manager, all part-time. The rest of organisation is run through a large group of volunteers and supporters. In terms of volunteer research surveyors, there’s probably in the region of 180 volunteers on the books. On top of that, we have a lot of other supporters who don’t necessarily go out and collect data but may process it for us or help out in local events. We also involve members of the public, for example, we have a number of boat operators recording sightings in core areas, like The Channel and also off the Northumberland and Yorkshire coastlines.

How do you get involved with MARINElife?

Initially I’d encountered marine wildlife whilst on holidays in far flung destinations. I came back from a hoiday in Australia and couldn’t wait for my next holiday to become involved with whales and dolphins again. I wondered whether there were opportunities closer to home to encounter these animals so I searched on the internet, found out about the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme and how good the Bay of Biscay is for encountering whales, dolphins and porpoises. I’m originally from Portsmouth so I knew about the P&O ferry that went from Portsmouth to Bilbao but I’d never been on it and never realised you could see such a diversity of marine animals so close to UK shores. Went on ferry and offered my help to wildlife officers.

Why do you, as an organisation, think marine conservation is so important?

There is so little known about the marine environment, we know so much more about what is going on on the land. There’s not much in terms of on a regular basis outside of voluntary organisations. Often the government are relying on large funded programmes which operate on a relatively infrequent basis, perhaps every five to ten years, and there’s not much that goes on between those snapshots. We believe its our job to fill in those gaps and understand whether populations are stable whether they are increasing or decreasing and which areas are important and need to be protected.

Sightings of Minke whales have been recorded around Poole, Dorset. Image via marine-life.org.uk

What have your findings shown?

It’s difficult to be definitive as you need quite a significant data set. That’s what’s  good about ferry work,  you can collect data month in month out. What we do seem to see is changes in the distribution of animals. Animals that were once in one area don’t seem to be found there now. They may not have disappeared, they may have moved area and it’s possible they may move back. The key thing  we want to make sure of is that ferry coverage is as wide as possible. That way, we can make much better predictions about what’s going on.

What is an example of a project MARINElife are currently working on?

Well, from a small boat perspective  we are focusing on Lyme Bay in Dorset. This is a  good area for spotting white-beaked dolphins. They tend to be found in cold water and are under significant pressure. There have been changes in distribution of this creature, however, there’s a relatively stable population at Lyme Bay. We’ve been carrying out photo identification work and are hoping to extend this research into the North Sea.

As a voluntary organisation MARINElife are always searching for new volunteers. If you are interested in marine conservation and would like to volunteer for MARINElife visit:  www.marine-life.org.uk

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Q&A: Pamela S. Turner – Author of Project Seahorse

Passionate diver and wildlife conservation volunteer, Pamela S. Turner, 54, is the author behind children’s book Project Seahorse. Pamela started writing when she lived in Japan and had her first book, Hachiko, published in 2004.

Pamela aspired to be an author from the age of 4-years-old. Image via www.pamelasturner.com

During her lifetime she has also resided in Kenya, the Marshall Islands, South Africa, the Philippines and currently California. She has three children, all of whom were born in different countries.

As well as books she has written many science and nature articles for both adults and children. Project Seahorse is the sixth and latest addition to her collection of published children’s books.

Q: When did you first decide to write Project Seahorse?
A: It started with an article on seahorses that I wrote for National Wildlife, world edition. I have been a scuba diver for many years, and wanted to write something about coral reef conservation for kids. Seahorses have terrific appeal, they’re so weird and cute, I thought they would provide a compelling angle on the subject. I had already written two books in the Houghton MifflinScientists in the Field” series (Gorilla Doctors and The Frog Scientist) and my editor loved the idea of mixing marine biology and development issues.

Q: How would you describe the book?

A: Project Seahorse brings readers to the Philippines for a look at an innovative coral reef conservation program to help seahorses and the local fishing families that depend on the sea for their livelihoods.

Q: Where did the idea come from?
A: I’ve been a scuba diver for over 25 years, and was dying to do a wet-and-salty sort of book! A seahorse is an animal everyone recognizes and most people have sympathy for, so it was a good fit.

“Spending time with local fishing families and seeing how traditional fishing is done was the biggest thrill for me. Digoy, the Filipino fisher who demonstrated his technique, was a world-class breath-holder!”

Q: What was your main aim when producing it?
A: My main aim was to make children care about seahorses, coral reefs, and the people of the Philippines.

Q: How did you obtain the information?
A: I read many, many scientific papers by Amanda Vincent and other seahorse scientists, and I visited the Philippines with Amanda and her colleagues to see the project first-hand.

Q: What are the most interesting things you learnt whilst creating Project Seahorse?
A: I already knew a fair amount about marine protected areas and seahorses. Spending time with local fishing families and seeing how traditional fishing is done was the biggest thrill for me. Digoy, the Filipino fisher who demonstrated his technique, was a world-class breath-holder!

Q: Have you always been interested in marine life?
A: I grew up in Southern California and got my scuba diving certification in 1984. I think the great thing about diving is how close you can get, safely, to all sorts of animals. My diving has definitely inspired my writing. In addition to Project Seahorse, I wrote Prowling the Seas, about a high-tech tagging project that includes leatherback turtles, white sharks, bluefin tuna, and sooty shearwaters, a species of seabird.

Tiger tail seahorse via http://www.pamelasturner.com

Q: Who did you work with?
A: Amanda Vincent, Heather Koldewey, Amando Blanco, and many other members of Project Seahorse. The wonderful photos were taken by Scott Tuason, an amazingly talented photographer based in Manila.

Q: How long did it take to publish – from the idea to going to print?
A: The whole process took several years. We had to find a good time for me to visit the Philippines, and then the design and printing process takes many months, even after the text is finished.

Q: Who is it aimed at, simply children or for anyone?
A: Although Project Seahorse is a children’s book, targeted at readers aged 9 to 12, I think any adult who wants to learn more about coral reef conservation, and particularly marine protected areas, will come away satisfied.

Q: What reactions have you had from readers so far?
A: I’ve had many lovely reviews from professionals, for example librarians and teachers, as well as kids who are quite taken by the subject and amazed by the underwater pictures.

Q: Any more plans for books on the cards?
A: Right now I’m working on a new “Scientists in the Field” book, Dolphins of Shark Bay, about wild bottlenose dolphins in Australia, coming in Autumn 2013.

See the entire range of Pamela’s wildlife books on her website and watch a video here about the work of Project Seahorse.

The life cycle of a seahorse

COURTSHIP: Seahorses court for several days at a time. The courting ritual involves dancing, changing colour and entwining tails. Sometimes, more than one male seahorse will compete to win the affections of a female, or vice versa. Males can inflate their pouch by pumping water through it to display its emptiness. This is to entice the female to deposit her eggs in it.

Typical seahorse courting rituals involve dance routines which last hours. Image via weheartit.com

EGG TRANSFER: The female deposits her egg in the water in order to transfer to the males pouch. The male releases his sperm directly into seawater to fertilize the eggs. They are then embedded in the pouch wall and become surrounded by a spongy tissue. The number of eggs varies between species.

PREGNANCY: Although the male carries the baby, the initial conditions in the pouch are determined by the nutrients provided by the female, but when the eggs are in the pouch conditions are controlled by the male. He provides oxygen and nutrients through a network of capillaries. The embryos will remain in the pouch for two to six weeks, depending on species and temperature, as they develop into fully formed juveniles.

It is the male seahorse that becomes pregnant. Image via weheartit.com

BIRTH: When the male seahorse is ready to give birth he has muscular contractions to expel the young, which are known as fry, from the pouch.

YOUNG: Newborns measure between two and twelve millimetres, depending on species. The number of young produced ranges between 100 and 200 for most species, but can be as low as 5 for the smaller species, or more than 1,500 for larger species. The fry will often grasp floating or still objects, and even each other, with their tails. 

Baby seahorse, known as fry, are born fully functioning. Image via weheartit.com

JUVENILES: Newly released young undergo only small changes after emerging from the father. During growth some body proportions may change but they don’t experience major body changes. Some newborns emerge with a small fin which is lost over time.

ADULT: Mature male seahorses have the ability to become pregnant any time during the breeding season, which varies with species. This is thought to be influenced by environmental conditions such as water temperature.

Seahorse FAQ

There’s no denying that seahorses are fascinating, magical little creatures but, apart from being pretty, what do we actually know about them and why are they so important? This page will answer the common (and the not so common) questions swimming through your brain, to give you a better insight into the life of a seahorse.

Where does the seahorse get its name?

  • Seahorse derives from the Ancient Greek word ‘hippocampus‘. ‘Hippos’ meaning ‘horse’ and ‘kampos’ meaning ‘sea monster’.

How many different types of seahorse species are there?

Which type of seahorses live around the British Isles?
Where are they found around the English coast?
  • The Short-Snouted Seahorse is found along the south coast of England and the Channel Islands. The Spiny Seahorse is also found along the south coast but also along the west coast up to the Shetland Isles.

Can seahorses make a noise?

  • Seahorses produce clicking and popping sounds during feeding and courtship. They do this by moving two parts of their skull against each other.

What is the name for a group of seahorse?

  • A Herd

A group of seahorses is known as a Herd. Image via weheartit.com

What is the average life span of a seahorse?

  • There is no definite answer but it ranges from roughly one year for the smaller species to an average of three to five years for the larger species.

What do seahorses eat?

  • Brine shrimp, tiny fish and plankton. An adult eats 30-50 itmes a day. Seahorse fry (baby seahorses) eat a staggering 3000 pieces of food per day.

How do seahorses eat?

  • Seahorses have no teeth and no stomach. Food passes through their digestive systems so quickly, they must eat almost constantly to stay alive.

How do seahorses have babies?

  • The female seahorse lays the eggs and transfers them into the male seahorses pouch where they are then incubated. Every male seahorse has an incubation pouch in its body.  The eggs are fertilized by the male, who also goes through the labour process and it takes 2-3 weeks for the babies to be born.

It is the male seahorse who gets pregnant and gives birth. Image via weheartit.com

What are the main threats to seahorses?

There are three main reasons seahorses are at risk:

  1. Firstly, the Traditional Chinese Medicine Trade take in excess of 20 million seahorses a year from the wild to be used for medicinal purposes.
  2. They are used as souvenirs in many countries. They are deliberately taken from the sea by the Curio Trade and left to die in the boiling sun.
  3. The pet trade takes an estimated one million seahorses. It is thought that less than 1,000 of these live for more than six weeks.

Pygmy seahorse Code of Conduct

Marine life expert and underwater photographer, Dr Richard Smith, has dedicated much of his time to allowing us less ocean-knowledgeable folk an in-depth look at a habitat we wouldn’t usually have the privilege to see.

Pygmy Seahorse Bargibanti captured by Dr Richard Smith via OceanRealmlmages.com

Educated from one end of the globe to the other, he has a Zoology degree from Southampton University, England and an MSc in Ecology and Evolution from the University of Queensland, Australia. With over 2000 dives under his belt Richard has achieved Divemaster status. It was just last year that Richard was awarded a doctorate for his research into the biology and conservation of, yes you guessed it, seahorses. Pygmy to be specific. It was during his PhD in which he created the Code of Conduct for diving with and photographing pygmy seahorses.

“I’m trying to have the Code of Conduct reach as many divers as possible and it’s always great for the general public to learn more about seahorses too.” – Dr Richard Smith

Pygmy seahorses have the smallest population of any species of seahorse. Measuring between 1.4 and 2.7 cm in length, their size makes them extremely fragile and delicate, and caution must be taken when documenting them and their habitat. Dr Richard Smith’s main aim is to reduce the negative impact that divers have on these rare animals and, to ensure greater protection of this species, created The Code of Conduct guidelines presented here:

  1. Do not touch or manipulate pygmy seahorses in any way, as this can easily damage or even kill them
  2. Do not touch the gorgonian home of the seahorse (they are extremely slow-growing and delicate), take particular care of camera position and exhalent bubbles
  3. Do not use a torch/flashlight or camera focus light to highlight a pygmy seahorse, this disorientates and stresses them
  4. Use white balanced natural light rather than artificial light for video capture to reduce disturbance from bright lights
  5. Five photo limit per diver using flash photography, as more can stress the animal
  6. No night diving with pygmy seahorses – they sleep at night and lights disturb them
  7. Be aware of the surrounding environment, pay close attention to fin positioning, so not to damage other corals

Pygmy Seahorse Denise captured by Dr Richard Smith via OceanRealmlmages.com

Find out more about the work of Dr Richard Smith visit his website, Ocean Realm Images and keep up to date with him on Twitter @Rich_Underwater