Seahorse Homeland: Conservation Efforts to Save the Declining Seahorse Communities of the Ria Formosa

Latest update September 13, 2019 Started on November 7, 2018
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European Seahorses (H. guttulatus and H. hippocampus) are rated in the IUCN Red List as "data deficient", but a recent international study in the Ria Formosa coastal lagoon, located in the south coast of Portugal, shows a drastic reduction of the once thriving communities.


In the first phase of this synergy project with investigators from the Centre for Marine Sciences of the University of the Algarve we'll be collecting footage of seahorse communities with the use of underwater cameras and an ROV in order to map their territories in the Ria Formosa and its respective basin . The use of the ROV will promote a much wider coverage than by the traditional SCUBA-Diving method. A Conservation oriented documentary will be produced and presented to the local communities, schools and diverse stakeholders in order to raise awareness for future and current Conservation efforts.

November 7, 2018
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In The Field
Due to the changes in the Open Explorer platform, and as a S.E.E. Initiative Expedition, we'll be migrating to the National Geographic Society platform during the next month. The Expedition is going on full force after some initial setbacks concerning grants and funding, and we'll be back posting in the next weeks on a more consistent base. Thank you to the Open Explorer platform for feeding our Conservation dreams and to connect so many scientists and citizen scientists. Nuno

Night dive


While waiting for some gear to arrive I decided to go for a night dive with our beloved SofarOcean Trident ROV.

What a night! It is amazing the underwater life that is awake at night and going about their business. The current was strong but we managed to spot some curious sardines (Sardina pilchardus), sand smelts (Atherina presbyter), two-banded seabream (Diplodus vulgaris) and sea anemone. No seahorses, but remarkable things!

It was a nice dive, and I will repeat night dives for sure, if the tide wasn't so strong, I would have stay for hours at end.

Don't forget to follow us here at Open Explorer and on Twitter @seahorsehome for more frequent updates!

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

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Preparation

Expedition Update


First of all I am sorry for not posting this last month. Being a citizen scientist and having a job besides all the scientific side projects kind of cuts your time to almost nothing. But good news are what matters, and we have some! (Finally) some funding was unlocked and the project is now underway! The routes, diving spots and logistics are on their final preparation phase and we can't wait to be on the water more frequently! Also, our Sofarocean Trident ROV had an amazing update and now records telemetry on the HD video. For us it means that we might leave the heavy and cumbersome temperature and depth/pressure sensors on dry land as we'll get this information directly from the Trident. A great feature is also the recording of the direction compass as we're studying a way to estimate transect direction without the need for divers on the water.

For now that's all, check the video below for the telemetry recording in a test dive on the Ocean side, but so close to shore that it's pretty much sandy bottom and algae and shellfish being rolled over by the current and waves.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@seahorsehome) for more frequent updates

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

Shooting the documentary "Warhorses"


The forecast was uncertain and the previous day was filled with strong winds and rain, but that day was a new one and the morale was high. Everything was packed and I left for the Olhão dock with high hopes of getting good footage as that was the day that I was going to pilot the Trident from a boat for the first time, and pretty much with the full team of the Seahorse Homeland (and it's spin-of Searching for Seahorses ) team!

I arrived early and realized the water visibility was not good, but nothing demoved me as Miguel arrived with his full diving equipment. I couldn't help but feel like my equipment was so much less that a divers one... and the best was still to come! João Rodrigues and the friendly and good humored Chimera Visuals team arrive on time and that was the real deal in equipment. Besides the diving basics there was the underwater cameras, the boom mic, the surface cameras, the drones and so on... I clearly remember one of them saying he was a bit disappointed with the Trident's size, which I carry in a small plastic box, together with all which is required to operate it. From all the hype I guess he was expecting to find a huge submarine full of bells and whistles and not a sleek and sexy ROV! (In his defense he was pretty surprised with the performance later that day)

We managed to squeeze all the equipment on the boat and after a peaceful 20 minutes ride across the wonderfull Ria Formosa we arrived at a predetermined spot ready to start shooting the Warhorses documentary that João is producing. This was a place where unconfirmed reports of seahorse sightings have been made, and we couldn't wait to go underwater.

The experience of filming with a professional crew, and one as passionate for Conservation as I, was amazing, and we managed to shoot some nice scenes. The diving crew spoted a Seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus) unfortunately caught on a legal bottom fishing net, but they managed to release him. The ROV didn't get the scene as I was accompanying a different diving team when it happened. Nonetheless it was great to film from a boat, and the Trident capabilities are as if you're operating from solid ground. We'll come back to the same place for sure, as the potential of finding more Seahorses seemed very interesting.

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

Follow us on Twitter (@seahorsehome for frequent updates on the Expedition and other Conservation related content!

Warhorses


Exciting news! We've been invited by João Rodrigues from Chimera Visuals to participate in his Seahorse film "Warhorses" (original title: Cavalos de Guerra) together with our Sofarocean Trident ROV. You can see the trailer below, and believe me: IT IS AMAZING!

João is a biologist, professional diver, filmaker and, among other things, a photojournalist for National Geographic Portugal. He's passionate about Nature and especially marine and aquatic environments.

We are super thrilled to be part of this, and we can't wait to get wet and shoot some amazing stuff underwater!

Follow us on Twitter (@seahorsehome ) for frequent updates! Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

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Looking forward to hearing more about your project! I live on Mexican Pacific coast and this winter we see more sea horses than ever before ..

One more Test dive - different conditions


It was a windy but nice Sunday, and what better than going for a dive with the Trident when you live not 5 minutes from one of the most amazing wetlands in the World: the Ria Formosa.

There was some walking involved to get close to the Faro inlet. The previous test dives were made in places where Seahorses occur, that means more current and less maneuverability of the ROV, this time the aim was different: to test it in natural "perfect"conditions. After a nice 2 km walk between sand, wooden planks and makeshift walkways for fishermen, I arrived at this amazing and idyllic small bay, right were the natural inlet occurs. Right now its further southeast, both because of human pressure upstream as well as the natural shift of the inlet, but all in all, a great calm place to test the Trident.

Like the previous dives there were ups and downs, and that's all part of the fun:

Positive:

  • Buoyancy problem solved: this closer to the inlet the salinity is closer to "normal" and the Trident is much easier to control. When we need to dive further away and with higher salinity I'm adding some weight to help out;

  • Amazing control in calm waters: huge difference comparing to previous dive sites with fast underwater currents, even with a decent amount of wind, the control is great;

  • Deployment: I know I've stated this before, but the deployment of the Trident is SO easy and fast! It took me less than 5 minutes to unpack it, connect everything, test the controls and dive (video proof! )

Negative:

  • Had some trouble with luminosity in my tablet, but bear in mind that I don't use the Sofarocean (previous OpenROV) control, but a common tablet. As such most of the dive was almost "blind" and watching from the surface.

The footage itself caught some nice things: a big shellfish pilgrimage to Neptune knows were, being chased by a school of fish, and some very interesting sand smelts (or so I think) jumping around in the bottom.

Stay tuned for more updates! #seeyouunderwater Follow us for frequent updates on Twitter ( @seahorsehome ) or Instagram (@seahorsehomeland ) and also check our Spin-of expedition here at Open Explorer Searching for Seahorses

Testing, testing ,testing


One more test with the Trident, visibility still bad, strong current and everything to make it hard on us!

We keep testing the Trident ROV, but the low visibility is not helping, neither are the sea conditions. This time the wind was against the tide, which meant that on the first centimeters of water the Trident was being hardly pushed one way, and since it passed that threshold it went exactly in the opposite direction! In the video below you can see how we scraped the bottom (after seeing some Mullets) because of this. It's very important for us to test it under all conditions possible, as to better understand the limitations and plan our dives.

The buoyancy is still a factor we weren't able to solve as the Ria Formosa is very salty. With time we are being able to better control the Trident nonetheless.

We are now hoping for some nice currents and weather in order to test it in optimal conditions so we can start diving for Seahorses without the risk of hurting them or any marine life (our divers included!).

If you didn't before, please follow us on Twitter @seahorsehome and help us chose a name for our ROV.

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

A challenging environment for sure but what a spectacular place to work! We've just spent a wonderful evening out on the Ria Formosa and it's certainly a fantastic place to work and great bird life, but yes, with some formidable currents! Good luck!

Waiting for better meteorological conditions


Meteorological and water conditions haven't been friendly for the project and we didn't do any dives in the last 2 weeks. There's also new legislation for investigation vessels and that didn't allow our "more than used for investigation boat" to go out and do it's job, and as such we're stuck to near shore spots.

Hopefully tomorow we'll dive and test once more the Trident in fairly good conditions. Our spin-of expedition Searching for Seahorses is also on hold for the same reasons.

Good news is that as soon as this unlocks we'll be having plenty of footage.

Also, check our Twitter @seahorsehome for a poll on what to name our ROV and other frequent information on the project!

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

First dive with the Trident!
I woke up before the sun and my sleepiness suddenly vanished when I realized it was the day I was going out to test the Trident kindly donated by and the SEE Initiative. The weather forecast was gloomy and as soon as I reached the window I had the confirmation: the clouds hid the sun, it was very windy and the visibility in the water was probably really bad. Not one to let it ruin the big day, specially after all the difficulties to get the Trident (see previous posts), I decided to go and dive anyway! A test dive is also useful in dire conditions, so one can test the limits of the equipment - truth be told I couldn't hold any longer the excitement of going out and test it.

First impressions of the Trident in real life situation:

  • Astonishingly quick to be ready to dive - from arriving to the dive spot to the Trident diving it was about 5 minutes. And I mean connecting the cables, connecting the console app and testing the controls for the first time.
  • Footage quality - although the visibility conditions were awful (cloudy sky, murky water due to springs tide, current, wind) I was very impressed by the footage quality. In the water column there were difficulties with the murkiness, but we were still able to see some mullets and other fish. Close to the bottom, at around 3 m, the quality was amazing for the visibility conditions. I was very positively impressed!
  • Controls - easy enough, I am using a gaming console attached to a tablet and it works fine. Of course I need some practice, specially when maneuvering against the current or close to the bottom when the auto stabilization turns of. I also tested with a backup smartphone (basically if for some reason I get out of battery in the tablet) but it's really just a backup solution - the Trident wasn't made to be driven with a smartphone but it's really nice that it does, even if it's just for emergency situations.
  • Buoyancy - even with the weights for salt water it has a slight positive buoyancy, I will find a solution to weight it down a bit more. Probable reason is due to the high salinity in the Ria Formosa.

Overall the Trident is an amazing equipment, and it will help us immensely.
In the video below you can see the first 5 minutes of the dive.

Ñew footage coming soon. Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

The close focus capability looks great on it - very important for identifying things, especially in murky waters. I'll be in Portugal i a couple of weeks just east of Portimao. Have you any good recommendations for where to dive / snorkel? If I see any seahorses I'll be sure to let you know :-)

Time to meet the team


It was a lovely Autumn morning when I decided to stroll the calm waters of the Ria Formosa in my SUP board. That day I decided I wanted to do something for the Conservation of the Ria Formosa ecosystem. From that day to contacting Miguel, it was as quick as searching for hay (yes hay) in a haystack!

Miguel is our seahorse expert and the one person everybody in Portugal recognizes when you ask about the species. He's afiliated with CCMAR and Universidade do Algarve , with a PhD in European seahorse ecology and conservation, plus 12 years experience working with seahorses. He works with the world's leading seahorse conservation and research group, Project Seahorse, as a Research Associate providing scientific contribution for conservation policies and taxonomic expertise. Also a member of the IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group, he's basically our seahorse walking (and diving) encyclopedia.

One day we'll ask him if he has a name for every seahorse he ever encountered in the Ria :)

In the next update see the first footage with the Trident!

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

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Thank you @Diogo! @Diego, I believe it is possible to recover the populations, let's do our best to save them and all the ecosystems they are part of! Thank you for your support!

The Trident arrived!


Amazing news, the OpenROV Trident donated by the S.E.E. Initiative finally arrived! We had a tough 2 months trying to take it out of Customs, and I have to thank Gina, Madeleine, Nicole and Bruno for making it possible. Without them and the OpenROV, Open Explorer and NatGeo team it wouldn't have been possible.

Right now we're super excited and I can't wait to go and dive with the Trident (see video below). The plan is to test it out in controlled conditions and then head out to the underway phase of the expedition. Depending on weather and sea conditions we're planning on a real dive to support our SCUBA-Divers next week.

Stay tuned for more frequent updates from now on, #seeyouunderwater at the Seahorse Homeland!

Extra note: Follow us on Twitter (@seahorsehome) and also check our spin-of expedition Searching for Seahorses here at Open Explorer!

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Questing for diving spots


Another short update on the expedition: the Quest for diving spots and respective diving conditions, equipment access and all logistics continues.

I searched along the Ria Formosa, more specifically in a beautiful place called Fuseta, this time with the company of Nick Robinson from Algarve Addicts that, together with his trusty drone, shot some amazing footage (see video below - low res). We'll be sure to bring him along when we dive in search for the Seahorse Homeland!

Stick with us! #seeyouunderwater

Expedition expansion!


Great news for the expedition and for Seahorses! We're teaming up with WWF Portugal to map and monitor more sites across Portugal and not just the Ria Formosa! The interest was mutual and the possibility to use the Trident sealed the deal. I'm still amazed by the dimension that the project is taking and the awareness that it's raising, even internationally. This fuels the motivation of the team that is by now skyrocketing, and anxious to be on the water when the Trident finaly arrives.

In the last preparation meeting, amongst other details, we decided to make three types of dives with the Trident (that will soon have a name):

  • Mapping/Transect dive: a technical dive having the main objetive of mapping the habitat by defining a grid system.

  • SCUBA support dives: diving together with SCUBA divers monitoring seahorse populations.

  • Free dives: basically diving for every and no reason at all. Diving, filming, diving more, find great stuff underwater and have lots of fun exploring.

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

Amazing news ! Well done Nuno.

Thank you Xavier! Always nice to know someone actually reads the posts :)

Looks like a great project! There is so much to explore around our coasts - we are always discovering new things. This sort of ROV technology should open up a whole new world of understanding, just when we need it most. Good luck!


I'll be visiting southern Portugal in a few weeks and look forward to exploring a few underwater areas.

While waiting...


Despite the fact that the Trident is stuck in Customs for almost a month, I feel as motivated as ever to move on to the "Mission Underway" stage of this expedition.

As such, I've been exploring locations where documented Seahorse populations exist to understand which places are the best to launch the Trident from in diverse sea conditions.

The last time I accessed the conditions was in a clear winter day, and one that started really early (see photo below). I inflated my board, checked the equipment and just went underway. I started at the Faro Beach, and traveled North-West to Quinta do Lago. We're at spring tides, and the 3.6 meters height of the tide meant that seahorses were probably around 6 meters below surface. The water was not as clear as I thought it would be, so I basically scanned the area for nice landing spots to maneuver the Trident instead of free diving to try and check on their habitat.

The place looks promising, there are reported sightings of Seahorses in the area, and so, as soon as the ROV arrives, this is one place the team will be checking for sure.

Can't wait to go underwater with the Trident. Guess we'll even name it as all vessels should.

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Technicalities


Just a quick update to let you know that the expedition didn't die, it's just that we're still waiting for our Trident to arrive because it's stuck at the Portuguese Customs for some weeks now.

All will be well and hopefully we'll start 2019 filming seahorses while they are still recovering from the New Year's Eve!

Joke's appart, after the legal phase of getting the Trident out of Customs we'll be putting it on the water for test dives asap so we can test it's capabilities and fine-tune our methodology for mapping the Seahorses Homeland!

Also a quick note to let you know that the project is raising interest and good news are coming our way starting January.

Stay with us, #seeyouunderwater

Such a cool project. Hope you get the Trident soon! Looking forward to reading your progress.

Thank you Xavier! I can't wait to get it.

The first Seahorses in the expedition - but still not in the wild


It was in an not-so-rare-around-here perfectly clear Winter morning that I visited the University of the Algarve's Ramalhete Station. Diversified water related research is made here, right by the calm waters of the Ria Formosa. I get out of the paved road as I follow along the remote access to the investigation station and as the dirt rolls behind my car the beautiful landscape develops in front of me. It's high tide, and the full salt marshes reflect the sunlight as I reach the research facility. There's a sense of tranquility in the air when I knock on the door.

I'm greeted by Miguel and Jorge, the investigators responsible for the scientific arm of the expedition and specialists in Seahorses.

After the necessary safety equipment (not contaminating the facility is of the uttermost importance to the research and animals studied here), I am led through a wet corridor and into a small room. At first it looks like a post apocalyptic mad scientist laboratory, but as my eyes adjust to the dim luminosity, the familiar forms start to take shape in front of my eyes. More Seahorses than I can count are divided into numerous alphanumeric coded tanks in an apparent relaxed and calm atmosphere, but there's something more in the water. They are being fed! Although relatively slow animals, they feed on the living food that Miguel is pouring into the tanks with ease. The food is produced localy at the station in the Ria's own water as it helps reduce costs and is what these fish would find in the wild.

My eyes wander around the room as I talk to Jorge about the next steps to take in the expediton while we wait for the Trident to arrive. We also plan and discuss possible test dive sites for when it really arrives, as I want to do some preparation and train with the Trident before meeting Seahorses in the wild in order to not damage neither their habitat nor themselves.

We go back to talk about the Seahorses, as this is the exact same place where the first H. guttulatus in the world was successfully bred in captivity. After several developments, the program focused on the H. hippocampus species as these have a higher rate of survival and can breed after just 3 months.

I marvel once again with the 4th generation 20 centimeter long H. guttulatus in one of the lower tanks and with the diversity that one can watch in just two species, both in colours as in shape. I take just a couple of photos, as this almost feels like holy ground, then proceed to the exit while taking off my protection equipment and saying goodbye to Miguel and Jorge.

In the aftermath of the meeting I leave the Investigation Center with my head full of new ideas and a sure, I can almost call it stuborn, sense that I want, more than ever, to help save these amazing fish and use them as a flagship for all the other species in the Ria Formosa Natural Park.

Next step: rallying the forces to chose an initial diving site for testing the Trident.

Stay tuned. #seeyouunderwater

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Dreaming about Seahorses


also known as A very non-scientific update to the expedition.

I will share with you something very personal and special that happened to me today, although it doesn't really have any scientific content. It just defines the journey I think.

When I was laying my nearly 3 year old daughter in bed tonight, those big dreamy eyes looked at me and she softly asked "Daddy can you tell me the story of the seahorses?" - that was something special for me, as I haven't told her any seahorse story before, neither do we have a children's book about it. She just probably hears me talking so much about seahorses lately that she wanted to know what it was all about. I told her the most uncanny tale of seahorses ever, where a seahorse was playing with his friends and getting to know the other species that inhabit the Ria Formosa... please don't judge my awkward made up story :)

To be honest, besides warming my heart, this is why I do it. So that the magic can pass on to the next generation, so that they can also dream of seahorses and see them thrive in their natural habitats, not just in some aquarium. And that is why, besides having no financial support and working a regular day job that has to support everything, I keep doing it. It's a passion, it's something that really drives me, and today my little daughter made me realize that once again this is why I do it, this is the real goal of this expedition - to pass on the ability to dream to the next generation.

I promise that the next update will carry a more science directed content as this week we will discuss an action plan for the next months of the expedition.

Thank you for following and being part of this project!

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

Unplanned Time in the Water


This morning I felt like exploring a bit of the Ria Formosa outside the expedition plan and just headed out with my Stand Up Paddle board into a Ria section that I hadn't been before. No matter how many times I explore it, it always amazes me. The beauty of it is overwhelming, the sandbanks, the vegetation, the animals, but most of all how this all connects into to this special kind of otherworldly peacefulness (see for yourself in the video below).

To live at a walking distance from the Ria Formosa makes me wonder how lucky I am and that's why I want so hard to protect it.

As for the Expedition itself, today I didn't see seahorses, but I found a place where there might be some at greater depths, and a place that I will, for sure, be exploring once my OpenROV Trident arrives (I can't wait for it to arrive and I can't even imagine all the things I'm gonna find with it).

That's it for now. The plans for this week are meeting with the scientific members of the expedition and plan the first Trident dives.

Stay tuned! #seeyouunderwater

I'm thrilled to announce that the expedition was granted an OpenROV Trident to pursue the goal of raising awareness and study these wonderful fish! A big thank you to all that follow the expedition!


Plans for the first dive with the Trident coming soon! #seeyouunderwater

I woke up to a cloudly and damp weather. The wind was howling and from my window I could see the spot where I wanted to be later in the afternoon... or were I wasn't going to be.


Today I expected to go and get wet for some footage and check the access conditions of one of the spots where I expect to find seahorses, but the stormy weather didn't want the same.

Unfortunately for safety reasons I won't be able to make it, but maybe I get an opening in the next couple of days!

Stay tuned.

The expedition is now Live at National Geographic's Open Explorer!


The morale boost from these news was amazing and I feel like doing everything right now. As such, the next step starts immediately.

While waiting for the results from the S.E.E. application to obtain an OpenROV Trident, I'm meeting with the CCMAR team in order to use some previous footage and photos to understand what the light conditions will be underwater. Most of the mapping process will be made in 3 to 6 m deep waters, but the visibility conditions greatly vary as this is a very dynamic coastal lagoon. The tidal range goes from an average of 3 meters in spring tides to 1 meter in neaps tides and that makes for a careful planning.

Later this week I’ll also be doing some test footage with an action camera, dependent of sea and weather conditions, to understand what to expect in the Mission Underway stage. You can see below an interesting encounter with a mottled sea hare (Aplysia fasciata), filmed by the same action camera, while Paddling along the Ria Formosa (they usually don't swim much at surface level, it was interesting to watch).

A weather station was installed near the Ria Formosa to monitor and eventually cross information with what we find on the field that is dependent on weather conditions. This is a rather portable station and I might be moving it along the Ria according to project needs.

Fingers crossed, and let’s go find Seahorses!

Expedition Background

I remember being a little kid and thinking how cool it would be to ride seahorses underwater.
Later, I unfortunately realized a couple of things: first - I couldn't breathe under water, and second - seahorses weren't really the size of a horse.

Maybe it was these or other curiosities that took the Canadian investigator Janelle Curtis to the Ria Formosa in 2001-2002, and which led her into finding the world's largest seahorse community there. Back then, an estimated population of 2 million seahorses lived in the Ria Formosa, from both the H. hippocampus and the H. guttulatus species. In recent years, investigators from the Centre for Marine Sciences (CCMAR) of the University of the Algarve in Portugal estimated a decrease of 85% in H. guttulatus and 56% of H. hippocampus populations - in the same areas that Janelle Curtis monitored back in 2001.

Realizing this, I decided to create this expedition with the broad objective of raising awareness for this problematic, both at an international and national level, but more importantly at a local level.

For this I applied to National Geographic's S.E.E. initiative in order to use an OpenROV Trident (Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle) to map the Ria Formosa in a much wider extent than previously done by traditional SCUBA-diving methods. This first phase goal is to understand where the seahorse communities are located in the Ria Formosa, if they change locations along the time, and gathering proof of the already observed seabed deterioration and supposed illegal capture. For this I will have the collaboration of investigators from CCMAR - the same ones that discovered the drastic reduction of the seahorse communities. At a second phase, a documentary targeting the local communities, namely schools and decision makers in the Algarve region, is to be produced. The next phases will be to continue mapping the Ria Formosa along the next years in order to understand the evolution of the seahorse populations and to develop Conservation strategies for this particular fish and other inhabitants of the Ria.

As a bonus, I expect to capture footage of the immense species variety of the Ria Formosa and the entire 200km Atlantic coastline of the Algarve region.

In the end, all I want is that my kids, and their kids, dream of riding seahorses underwater as I did so long ago (and I still do).

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Really cool expedition Nuno ! Loved reading your first posts. Looking forward to read your updates. Do we know why that population decreased so much ?

Seahorses produce stridulation sounds by moving bones of their skull. It would be neat to deploy hydrophones to see if you could monitor them that way :-)

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