For most divers, there’s no species cuter than the pygmy seahorse. They're charming and shy, extremely well camouflaged, and their tiny snouts and pot bellies are downright adorable. It's easy to see why they're so popular among underwater photographers and macro enthusiasts.
If you're a seahorse fanatic interested in learning more about these incredible animals, or a muck diver hoping to spot your first pygmy on a dive, you've come to the right place. Read on to learn about this critter's incredible lifestyle and surprisingly social life - perfectly hidden in a swaying piece of soft coral or sea fan. We've also included tips on how to photograph this notoriously challenging subject, and where to dive if you want to find one!
What are pygmy seahorses?
The smallest of the seahorses, most pygmies are less than two centimetres in length. The first species discovered, the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse, was found accidentally in 1969 by scientists examining a gorgonian sea fan. Since then, eight additional species have been described, with the most recent described in May 2020.
Pygmies differ from their larger relatives in size, habitat, and lifestyles. Their bodies differ as they sport bulbous tubercles instead of the coronets and wispy skin filaments of larger seahorses. They also have shorter snouts and one single gill opening on the back of their head, instead of two on their sides. But like all seahorses, males brood their young in a pouch.
Full-sized seahorses are often spotted using their prehensile tails to hold on to seagrass and hard coral or other bottom structures. Pygmies use their tails in the same way, to firmly grip their preferred habitat - sea fans, soft corals, and algae - where they are often observed in colonies, with anywhere between five and 30 individuals living together.
Why divers love them
So, why do divers go crazy for pygmy seahorses? Other than charismatic looks, this species’ hard to spot nature and shy personality also make it a top pick among macro enthusiasts.
If you spend enough time observing them, pygmies will perform some fascinating social behaviours. Males can be seen fighting by swaying into each other in an attempt to knock the competition out of the way. They have also been observed wrapping their tiny curled tails around each other, potentially to assert dominance. This animal is surprisingly clever when it comes to avoiding humans as well, frequently turning away and disguising itself just as curious divers get close enough for a good look!
Observing from a distance will allow the seahorses to relax a bit, and you might get a chance to watch them moving about their habitat. Pygmies use their tails as tools to slowly swim, furling and unfurling to propel them along and grabbing on to their environment as they go.
Diving areas famous for pygmy seahorses
Feeling inspired to search through sea fans and soft corals for your very own pygmy seahorse? It’ll probably come as no surprise that these hard to spot creatures call some of the planet's top muck and macro diving destinations home.
Eight of the nine known species of pygmy seahorses are found in and around the Coral Triangle region of Southeast Asia. Their home range begins as far north as Japan, and extends as far south as New Caledonia and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Some notable places to spot these rare animals include muck and macro destinations like Lembeh and Ambon in Indonesia, Mabul in Malaysia, and Anilao in the Philippines. But, they're also found on Indonesian reefs around Raja Ampat and Wakatobi, and in far-flung destinations like Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Plus, one rare exception also exists, the recently discovered Sodwana pygmy seahorse, native to South Africa.
How and where to find them
Some larger species of seahorse spend most of their time in the shallows, but not pygmies. These minuscule creatures prefer deep water, with most species residing between 15 and 40 metres. In fact, some species, like Denise's pygmy seahorse, can be found as deep as 90 metres!
While it's true that the ‘original’ pygmy seahorse species prefers to live in fan corals, perfectly matching their colour and appearance, some species are found elsewhere. The Pontoh's pygmy seahorse, for example, prefers to hide out in algae and seagrass where it is best camouflaged.
The best way to find a pygmy is often to employ the skills and knowledge of a guide. These dive professionals are highly trained in finding macro wildlife and will know what habitat to search in, and even of any local populations. These animals have an exceptionally small home range, and in most cases, will spend their entire lives in one tiny area.
Once you or your guide has found the ideal sea fan, soft coral, or clump of algae, the search is on! Pygmy seahorses blend into their surroundings perfectly, and most species are around one centimetre in length. So, hard to spot is a bit of an understatement. You’ll need perfect neutral buoyancy while you scan the environment for an animal smaller than your fingertip. And, you’ll likely be diving in a current.
Some guides use strategies like shining a gentle light through the target sea fan to help reveal the pygmies that call it home. Others carry tools like magnifying glasses to help guests hone in on the reef’s super-small residents.
Tips for pygmy seahorse photography
Pygmies aren’t just challenging to photograph - they also require special care because they are so fragile! These tiny creatures have no eyelids, and are extremely sensitive to bright lights, including torches and camera strobes. So, divers need to use some special precautions during observation and photography.
If possible, use a gentle torch or flashlight for illumination and hold far from the animal. And, if you're going to take a picture, opt for a video light on a low setting instead of a strobe if you can. In cases when a flash is absolutely necessary, try to tilt your light away, hitting the seahorse with an indirect burst rather than a full-on flash. And, don't forget to use a diffuser.
You'll also want to take a limited number of pictures when shooting with a strobe, and some diving areas will ask that you limit the animal's exposure to three or four flashes. This can prevent the bright lights from endangering the seahorse.
Because they are such small subjects, shooting in macro mode is mandatory. And, you may even need an additional wet macro lens. Depending on the size of the seahorse, this animal verges on supermacro! Many divers also find it helpful to photograph this animal in pairs. Because pygmy seahorses are so skilled at turning away from divers, positioning one person on each side of a sea fan can help you capture the subject dead on! It may also help you avoid using harmful strobes, as you can take turns illuminating each others' shots.
Need some help with your pigmy seahorse hunt?
Contact one of our dive travel experts today.