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Diver Roger Hanson can tell you the exact date he saw his first seahorse in the wild. It was January 30, 2016 in the waters of Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, California.
He did a double take. “I was absolutely stunned,” Hanson says.
He had spotted a Pacific seahorse, aka hippocampus ingens, that day. It’s one of nearly 50 species of seahorses worldwide. Pacific seahorses live along coasts from California to Peru and aren’t known to venture past San Diego. Which is why Hanson couldn’t believe his eyes. Marine experts theorize that the warming of the waters caused by El Niño may have lured the fish further north.
To encourage this seahorse and others to stick around, Hanson built a biome out of sticks, palm fronds and pine branches. He called it Atlantis. The seahorses made themselves at home, comfortably anchoring their tails around the sticks and branches. Hanson has since built two more biomes—Vegas and The Bellagio—with all the amenities a seahorse could ever want.
Known as the Seahorse Whisperer, Hanson is devoted to the seahorses, whose exact location he keeps secret to protect the colony. The retired schoolteacher—who has been diving for 30 years—lives 80 miles away from Long Beach and visits them twice a week.
Hanson knows the members of the herd so well he has given each one names like Daphne, Bathsheba and C.D. Street (that one is named after his wife, Carla Denise Overstreet). And he keeps meticulous records on their activities and environment. “To my knowledge, I am the only one in the world tracking this particular species—Hippocampus ingens—this way,” Hanson says.
He shares data about his thriving seahorse community with academics and has learned a lot about how these fish behave. For instance, from what he has seen, seahorses need their space. “If you go to an aquarium, you’re likely to see 30 seahorses in a container… and they’re all jumbled together. In the real world, seahorses are very individualistic,” he says. “They like to be 15 to 45 feet apart.”
And no two seahorses are the same. Each one has a distinct personality, according to Hanson’s observations. “Daphne does not like you to look her in the eye. So don’t. If you do, you’re not going to see her again,” Hanson says. “And Bathsheba is very amiable, gregarious. She likes to be around people. I’ve seen her over 900 times.”
Hanson has formed a bond with these creatures over the years. Does he think of them as friends? “I consider myself a part of the herd—a little bit bigger, a lot older, but, yes, friends,” he muses.
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