Notorious for high amounts of raw sewage, flesh eating bacteria, and overall filth the Ala Wai Canal at a glance is a horrible environment for aquatic species. Yet life persists in the polluted waters of the canal with some unlikely species not only surviving but thriving. The seahorse Hippocampus hilonis is a Hawai’ian subspecies of the smooth or estuarine seahorse Hippocampus kuda is one of these unlikely inhabitants of the Ala Wai. This animal makes infrequent appearances in pet shops across the island. Infamous for its difficulty to maintain in aquaria and often drab brown or black coloring it is still quite popular in the aquarium trade.
Having cultivated an interest in keeping and rearing seahorses from my time spent at the Waikiki Aquarium I was eager to get my hands on a few individuals for a personal breeding project. After speaking with local pet stores and fish collectors my hopes of acquiring any of these critters in the near future were pretty well squashed. According to local stores the best source for seahorses are the local homeless. I was told from time to time the odd vagrant would come into the stores with a bucket of seahorses fresh from the Ala Wai. My initial reaction was disbelief. How could a fish known for being incredibly susceptible to bacterial and parasitic infections becoming out of the Ala Wai? I assumed it was a fluke occurrence, but nevertheless started making rounds of the Ala Wai poking in the weeds and detritus as deep as I dared on a mission to find seahorses. After a few months the closest thing I’d found to a seahorse was what appeared to be a somewhat seahorse shaped lump of poo.
Defeated, I made a last attempt to find seahorse through flyers. Printing off several dozen copies of “Seahorses Wanted” flyers I networked the Ala Wai. Speaking with every homeless person I came across and giving them spare change in the hopes they’d call me with information I was cautiously surprised when one toothless man living under a bridge told me he knew how to find seahorses. Thinking he was confused about what I was looking for I nevertheless gave him a flyer and continued on my way. Upon finishing handing out flyers I made my way back to my car and was stopped by the same toothless man who informed me he had a seahorse for me. Looking into his little former ice cream tub turned bucket my jaw nearly hit the pavement as I stared at a large bright yellow female seahorse. Giddy with excitement I told the man I didn’t have any cash on hand but could pick him up anything he wanted from the nearest store (a 7-eleven). The garbled request took a few repeats from him before I understood that he wanted “Marlboro reds”. Despite my aversion to smoking in the name of seahorses I went off to buy him his cigarettes. In the ten minutes it took me to walk off, pick up some smokes, and return to the bridge dwelling seahorse collector he’d managed to catch yet another large female seahorse. My excitement growing I let my newfound friend know I’d be back later that week and if he had anymore seahorses I could give him a small amount of cash per animal.
The week was a fruitful one and within a few days my 55 gallon seahorse tank had 6 new occupants. All of the seahorses were brown and fuzzy in appearance except the first female which was yellow with spots of brown fuzz. Assuming this was the normal coloration for my new pets I was yet again shocked by these little fish when they began to sough off their brown coatings to reveal bright yellow, red, and tan pigmentation. Pictured below are the before and after pictures of one of the seahorses collected.
It wasn’t long before I contacted a number of Sygnathid specialists, all of them intrigued by the prospect of seahorses with a sloughable outer coating of sorts. With interests piqued early talks have now begun about possibly studying this coating and performing histology work on Ala Wai Seahorses.
If all goes well the future might hold a new publication about these unlikely treasures from Honolulu’s most polluted water way.
-by Billy Roehl