You can hear me this week on BBC Radio 4’s Saving Species meeting some of the teeniest members of the syngnathid family. I went to Tampa Bay in Florida and did a spot of seahorse hunting with the wonderful Professor Heather Mason-Jones. Assisted by a gang of keen students (all of them ladies – go girls) we waded through the bay for a couple of hours, gently pulling fine nets across the seagrass beds, and found ourselves a bunch of dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zostera).
You’ll hear me getting excited about these extraordinarily tiny fish (a couple of cms from head to tail-tip), doing the ‘stingray shuffle’, and spotting beautiful comb jellies pulsing past. You might catch the sound of an aeroplane over our heads coming into land at Tampa airport a few miles away. And you’ll hear me moaning about just how cold me feet got in the process.
Admittedly, it was spring in Florida – which apparently gets quite chilly. Not far from our seahorse-hunting spot, there’s a famous warm water outlet from a power plant that Florida manatees flock to in the winter – like some kind of sea cow hot tub. But I wasn’t prepared for it being a meagre 14 degrees C under foot (heck, I didn’t think of packing a dry suit).
It was a huge privilege to work with Heather for the day (with her enthusiasm for marinelife I think we were destined to be kindred spirits). I caught up with her on the phone a few days ago to get an update on her work (more on that soon), and recorded a fantastic episode of ‘Critter of the Month’ for the Naked Oceans podcast (hang on a month or two to hear which critter she picked).
And I have to admit to being a teensy bit envious of Heather and her students who have this fantastic aquatic playground on their doorstep. Pick the right tide and they can just step out into a seagrass wonderland.
OK, so the water isn’t exactly crystal clear – just one of the reasons Heather has only seen a dwarf seahorse in the water a handful of times (add to the murky water the fact that like the rest of the seahorses, dwarfs are masters of disguise, dressing up in a coat of weedy skin filaments that blends them right into their background).
As well as the weeny critters beneath the waves, there were some bigger fellas up top keeping a close eye on what we were up to.