“SO what did you get up to on your vacation?”
“I shot 5 species of pygmy”….
“I photographed 5 species of pygmy seahorse, what did you think I was talking about?”
If this is the type of conversation that interests you, then Papua New Guinea and Lembeh are definitely the places to go if you want have a crack at finding multiple species of pygmy seahorses.
Let's kick things off with the Bargibanti Pygmy Seahorse. This is the classic go to pygmy, the most iconic of the species and surely the most photographed.
Legend goes that they were only recently discovered in a section of gorgonian sea fan, by accident under microscopic observation of the coral. I can understand the explanation as these dude just like all other species of pygmy seahorse ain’t so easy to find. Yet surely some local dive guide out there knew about these well before science explained them.
At least with the Bargibanti it's pretty clear where to look. All you gotta do is find the species of gorgonian sea fan they live in and start looking. In my experience they usually live in clean fans, so not one that is full of bristle stars or has many other inhabitants like small fish and shrimps. Like most species of seahorse, if there is one there is a good chance there is a second one near by. In the case of Bargibanti Pygmies, sometimes you can get quite lucky and find loads of them in the same fan.
Most times you’ll have a dive guide who will usually point them out for ya but if you wanna have a crack at finding them yourself, start with smaller sea fans. The are much easier to leave no stone unturned.
If you think that these little dudes are fun to find, try photographing one! The little pink shits never seem to want to look in the direction you want them to, but at least they stay relativity still compared to the species that don’t live in sea fans.
Moving along to another sea fan pygmy, the Hippocampus Denise AKA Denise’s Pygmy seahorse is another species that calls a sea fan home. This even skinnier species usually comes in an orangish pinkish pastel colour. If you're lucky you can find them in all sorts of variations.I’ve even once found one that was reddish black, likely a juvenile variation. These guys tend to live in fans that aren’t as thick as the Bargibanti, making them much easier to photograph.
Faustine showing a Denise's Pygmy Seahorse. Do you see it?
The next 2 species are up for debate. Some say that they are a variation of the same species some say they are 2 complete different ones. I ain’t no scientist, so I don’t know and the blah blah story behind it, nor do I really care. The Hippocampus Severnsi and the Hippocampus Pontohi are similar to two previous species, yet are worlds apart in where they live.
I am having a hard time believing these 2 are the same species!
These dudes don’t live on sea fans. They live in the crevices and small gaps between corals on the reef. Basically anywhere they can wrap their tails around is a potential spot to find them. Sometimes found on small little patches of wall or depleted sections of larger sea bommies, these guys are much harder to find.
Finding one of these guys on a dive is super exciting. I’ll never forget the first time I found one for myself on the backside of Mabul Island. I had just seen them for the first time a week earlier on a trip to Lembeh and was determined to find one once I got back to Malaysia…. After finding it, my guest attempted to film it with a go pro…..hahahahaha good luck.
The face might be blurry..... but the poo coming out its belly isn't!
Compounding the challenges of photographing these species is the fact that they are subject flopping around even with the slightest motion of the water. It's like photographing a flag on a gusty, windy day. There is usually little you can do about your position and often the flag pole wants to bend in a completely non-photogenic direction. If you are into getting a great look at their backside and want loads of back shots, then this is the species for you. You need time with these guys, so If you're in a group of 4 photographers and everyone wants to photograph it, your dive is doomed. You gotta get alone time with these guys, so make the necessary arrangements to make that happen if your plan is to photograph them. A private dive guide is usually the way to go.
These 4 species are pretty common to find almost year around in Lembeh. I’ve even seen them all on the same dive site. If you are all about ticking off these 4 species off your list, then Lembeh is by far your best choice. Also pygmies are just a small portion of the All-Star cast of characters that can be found over there.
However, if your all about seeing adding rare pygmy seahorse into the mix, then Papua New Guinea can produce all 4 of these guys plus one more! Not to mention if you're not such a big fan of muck diving, the coral reef systems are arguably the best in the world!
Just like the Rothchild's named a lot of shit after themselves, so did Nevile Coleman. An absolute legend in the early days of marine discovery and identification, he has put his name on a few absolute gems. Most notably, on quite possibly the whole grail of Nudibranchs, the Melibe Colemani. He’s got his name on the one of the coolest shrimps that lives exclusively on fire urchins. And yes, he has even been credited with discovering the Coleman’s Pygmy Seahorse AKA Hippocampus Colemani.
For me this species was super high on my bucket list. It even ranked up there with Whale Sharks and Orcas. For some reason the rarity of the species was always something that called to me. When Faustine and I worked in Papua New Guinea we were super lucky to often have the opportunity to dive with these beauties. We routinely made our way out to the dive site where it was rumored that the species had been discovered and I even got to know the local dive guide who claims to have found them, showed them to Nevile, and claims Nevile stole the credit. Hahaha, I dunno, when I look at the dive guide resume…..he might be right!
To the untrained eye the species is very similar to the Pontohi Pygmy Seahorse. It’s not until you pay close attention to the detail in the skin that you can see there is a small difference. The shape is slightly different and there are small pink dots on the Colemans. I’ve even seen juveniles that were almost all pink and purple yet impossible to photograph as there were always super sheltered.
The same difficulties of photographing Pontohi or Severnsi apply, flickering with every passing water movement, yet with these guys you’ve got the added element of the Halimeda getting in the way. It was very rare for the photographers we had onboard to come away with a good photo if the conditions were not absolutely perfect. There was always an extra buzz in the air the morning we’d go looking for these guys, sometimes turning into a game seeing how many we could find or sometimes a competition to see who would be first to find one. This is one species that Lembeh does not have, so if you want to see something a bit more rare and off Broadway, then Papua New Guinea is the place for you.
Are their other species of pygmy seahorse to be seen than just these 5? Absolutely, Japan has an endemic species and there are other described species and rumblings and rumors about several other species that inhabit the waters around Indonesia. The only problem is that in order to do a full taxonomy of a species, multiple specimens need to be captured and ultimate forfeited to science. At the end of the day does it really matter how many species there are and what their names are? If you truly love pygmy seahorses, or just animals in general, then surely sacrificing a few just to get a name and genome seems like quite an idiotic thing to do!