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Late-Night Adventures in the Phillipines with Project Seahorse

Since graduation from UC Berkeley, I have continued to dedicate my efforts toward the research and conservation of seahorses. I was granted the opportunity to volunteer for Project Seahorse Foundation for Marine Conservation. I participated in the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) Monitoring Program in the Philippines during September and October of 2006. What a treat! I traveled to an exotic and tropical land, and had my first glimpse of seahorses in their natural habitat.

Our first night of training for seahorse surveys was silky-black, the bright yellow disk of the moon dimming the stars and mirroring the glowing globe of the kerosene storm lantern lashed to the front of the body-length wood-carved outriggers we dragged by our sides. After squishing through two hundred meters of mangrove mud, neoprene booties holding to the ocean floor like suction cups, we managed to equip ourselves with fins, snorkel, mask, flashlight, pencil, slate, datasheets, and ruler.

For each seahorse survey, the six volunteers paired off with a local seahorse fisherman employed by Project Seahorse to help complete scientific research projects. The branching coral stretched out before Edward and me, loyally protecting the well-camouflaged seahorses within their seahorse-like appendages. Edward pointed, I looked and saw nothing - he pointed more earnestly, I looked, dove down a meter, looked again… My eyes lit up! My first seahorse! As it stubbornly wrapped its tail around my finger, I imagined it chanting the mantra, "I'm just a little branching coral, I'm just a little branching coral." We measured, sexed, determined stage of male pregnancy, and marked the location of the seahorse, a process that contributes to our knowledge of their ecological success within the MPA, and would be repeated over one hundred times throughout the frequent late-night excursions of the next two months.

The dark waters of the locally promoted MPAs off the island of Bohol, Philippines, proved to be not only educational, but beautiful and inspirational. The field work I did in the Philippines confirmed my fascination with seahorses, and led to my discovery of the joy of scientific diving. I am now in San Francisco, working as the Seahorse Research and Conservation Program Coordinator at the California Academy of Sciences. I have begun research on the phylogeny (tree of genetic relatedness) of the whole seahorse family, Syngnathidae. This project is very exciting to me because it has direct applications in conservation and management of fish biodiversity by contributing to Syngnathidae systematics, biogeography, population connectivity, and conservation status.

I look forward to applying to graduate school in the fall with an emphasis in how to create a sustainable future. Ultimately, I hope to be an educator in the field of evolution and ecology. I want to spread understanding of our current unsustainable trajectory, and the need to consider the consequences of our actions on other species, such as the lovable and charismatic seahorse.

-Norah Saarman


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