You can’t help but stare – and stare and stare – at the tiny fish with horseheads and the tiny dragons that look like plants. Most of us would never get to see these unique creatures of the sea if it weren’t for the new Seadragons & Seahorses exhibit at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.
We are walking through the exhibit and have paused in front of one of the aquarium’s new, multi-thousand-gallon water tanks, trying to distinguish the leafy seadragons from the kelp. We think there are five seadragons, but there could be more. It’s difficult to tell because they have taken the art of camouflage to the extreme.
“I’ve been in Australia diving in the seadragons’ natural habitat and they are hard to find even there,” confirms Leslee Matsushige, the aquarium’s associate curator, who is excited about this exhibit. “This is one of the largest seadragon exhibits in the world. We’ve designed it to be more like their natural habitat with boulders, seaweed and pilings. By making the seadragons more comfortable, we hope they will reproduce.”
Matsushige believes the aquarium is on the right track toward a propagation program that will ensure the survival of the species.
“We learn a lot by observing them here in the aquarium, which is what we do,” she says. “We’re an educational place. We’re trying to make improvements in keeping these animals healthy and get them to reproduce on their own. When fish are comfortable and healthy, they are more likely to reproduce.”
Knowing (the breeding) techniques is important in case the habitats of seadragons, found only in coastal Australia, are threatened and the aquarium must become a sanctuary for the animals.
No less fascinating are the 60 to 75 seahorses (30 to 35 species) in the exhibit. The largest ones are nearly a foot long, while the dwarfs can be less than 2 inches, and they come in many colors. Some fun facts about seahorses:
• There are 47 different species of seahorses; 14 were discovered in the last eight years.
• Seahorses in the wild are monogamous and some species mate for life.
• Seahorse couples greet each other every morning with a unique dance that sometimes involves changing color. This confirms the other partner is still alive, reinforces their bond and synchronizes their reproductive cycles.
• During mating season, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s pouch, where they are fertilized. The male gives birth after a two-week gestation.
The aquarium offers plenty of other things to see and do if you can pull yourself away from the seahorses and seadragons.
Children of all ages can get up-close-and-personal with tide-pool sea life in the touch pools on the back patio, which also offers a breathtaking, 180-degree view of the La Jolla coast and beyond. (This is a good time to remind yourself that this is why it costs extra to live here.)
Visitors also can watch divers in the Giant Kelp Forest feed sharks, moray eels and garibaldi fish (check the schedule), or visit the as-yet-unnamed loggerhead sea turtle.
The approximately 20-year-old turtle was rescued from the inside of a pipe at a New Jersey plant, where it was discovered that she had injured her shell, causing the loss of use of her back flippers.
The turtle was first sent to an aquarium in SC, then to Birch Aquarium where a UCSD medical team created a prosthesis for her shell using a 3-D printer.
“The prosthesis is to support her shell and promote normal growth of her spine,” Matsushige explains. “We’re happy with the way she’s developing.”
Top: There are at least three leafy seadragons in this photo. It’s difficult to tell because they blend in so well with their environment. These unusual creatures are part of the new Seadragons & Seahorses exhibit at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla. Photo by E’Louise Ondash