I’ll admit it, I got a bit obsessed with seahorses this summer. But for good reason. Summer is the breeding season for Hippocampus subelongatus, commonly known as the West Australian Seahorse. Over more than a dozen night and early morning dives at our local seahorse hangouts, I had the amazing privilege of photographing seahorses mating and giving birth. It’s an experience I will never forget.
Seahorses are incredibly beautiful and mythical, it’s hard to believe they are a fish. Our West Australian Seahorse is endemic to the south western coast of our state and is a protected species. What makes them so amazing is their special courtship and mating ritual and the fact that it’s the males who “get pregnant”.
On each of these summer dives, I had only one thing in mind, taking photos of seahorses! I returned home with a memory card almost exclusively imprinted with shots of seahorses. Apart from the fact they are one of my favourite marine creatures, capturing their unique mating and birthing behaviour was something I was desperate to add to my portfolio.
I knew that the best time to chance upon a male seahorse having babies was at night. I’d spend the first 10-20 minutes of the dive checking out the site and looking for males with protruding bellies. As they tend to stay in the same spot, it was easy to follow their pregnancy journey and return dive after dive to see their bellies getting bigger and bigger (or in some cases smaller as they’d given birth in the previous hours or days).
As it got darker, I’d then spend the dive moving from one pregnant male to the next, watching for signs that they might be ready to release their babies. When it’s time, their bodies start to twitch and contract, it’s almost painful to watch. They also move to a higher position, hanging from a piece of coral, to give their babies the best chance to swim free.
The first time I photographed seahorse babies, I didn’t even realise I had! The male was perfectly positioned on a sponge, looked ready to pop and his pouch was opening a little but there wasn’t the burst of babies I was expecting. I waited with him for over 2 hours and eventually headed back to shore. When I got home and downloaded the photos, I was surprised to see I had captured a couple of early arrivals slipping out of the pouch, one sitting just under his dad’s chin. They were so small I hadn’t even noticed them. I laughed and swore I’d pay more attention next time!
The next time I witnessed a proper birth was just before Christmas. I returned to my car full of excitement and elation only to be later disappointed at my photos. While I captured the babies being released, the background wasn’t ideal as the babies were lost in the busy coral. My depth of field could have been better too.
I vowed to return, with better settings and praying for a seahorse in a better position.
Returning for a night dive a few weeks later, I found four males that I was sure would give birth soon. I swam between each one over and over until one finally started releasing babies. As the female seahorse moved away, his pouch opened and dozens of miniature seahorses started spewing from his belly. Standing tall on the coral, he would pause to gain strength before the next batch flew out. This went on for about 10 minutes with hundreds of teeny tiny babies swimming for their lives into the black water. Exhausted, with his pouch deflated, I yelled a “thank you” to him and waved goodbye.
The next male I had noticed earlier was also having babies! It looked like much more of an effort for him as he strained back and forth squeezing out his babies. I then went back to the third male, he looked close to labour with some twitching but there wasn’t a lot of action. The fourth male was resting exhausted on the coral, his deflated pouch indicating that he too had just released his babies. Whilst I had missed this birth, the night was a birthing bonanza and I was very happy with the images I’d captured.
A couple of weeks later, on an early morning dive with friends, I noticed a seahorse pair showing a lot of interest in each other. They were wrapping their tails around each other and swaying in unison. I kept returning to them to watch their unusual behaviour. Soon they were mating, rising from the coral into the open water, the male opening his pouch to allow the female to drop in her eggs. A few seconds later and they would dash back to the safety of the coral. I watched them do this half a dozen times before the female retreated to leave the male to fertilise the eggs. I kept looking for my buddies but I couldn’t see anyone or hear any bubbles, I had hoped they could share in this amazing seahorse experience.
When photographing behaviour, it pays to be prepared. It all happens so quickly that you need to ensure your camera and strobe settings are ready to go as soon as the action starts. You also need to be patient. On some dives I spend almost the entire dive, sometimes 2 hours or longer, with one critter in the hope of capturing the perfect shot.
Breeding season is over and our local seahorses have now gone back to their usual routines. I will definitely be back next summer!