Pete Giwojna

Dear Donna:

Okay, so far, so good! It sounds like the guys at the LFS did a great job bagging and packing up for seahorses for the trip to Washington state, and got them off to a good start. That’s half the battle, so if everything goes well en route, they should arrive in excellent condition.

I don’t know what the weather is like in Yakima, Washington today, but I know it was still snowing in parts of Wyoming a few days ago, so here are some updated acclimating instructions that cover the contingency of a cold weather delivery in which the seahorses became chilled. You can share them with the recipient in Washington, and that way, we can be sure we have all the bases covered just in case of inclement weather. (I don’t think there’s any reason at all to think that the weather will be a factor at this time of year, mind you — it’s very unlikely, in fact — but I am just trying to play the devil’s advocate here and think of anything and everything that could possibly go wrong at this point in order to assure that the seahorses reach their destination safely and are acclimated properly once they arrive.):

Acclimating Seahorses that Have Been Chilled During Transit

When a shipment is delayed or mishandled en route, the seahorses may be exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period as a result. In a case like this, the temperature of the water in the shipping bag will largely determine how quickly acclimating can proceed. If the seahorses have been indeed chilled during transportation, the metabolism of these cold-blooded creatures may have slowed to a standstill and they may appear moribund, unmoving, unresponsive, not even breathing noticeably in severe cases. Don’t automatically assume they have expired! They may still be very much alive, but if badly chilled, their metabolism may have slowed to the point they are almost in a state of what the old sci-fi flicks referred to as suspended animation.

If that seems to be the case, don’t not open the shipping bags to check the water temp! The shipping bags will feel cold to the touch when you hold them and the moribund appearance of the seahorses will inform you that chilling has occurred. You must then be very careful not to raise the temperate of the shipping bags too quickly in order to avoid thermal shock. Under such circumstances, do not open the shipping bags, do not aerate them or add a drip line, do not set them on a heating pad or near a radiator or heating vent in order to warm them, do not float them in the aquarium, and do not add aquarium water to the chilled shipping bag! Just allow the shipping bags to gradually warm up to room temperature on there own in the ambient air temperature, however long that takes. Keep them in a quiet, darkened area during this time. (Don’t be concerned that the seahorses will asphyxiate in the unopened shipping bag. The cold water will hold the maximum available oxygen, and the seahorse’s metabolism will be slowed to the point they are barely breathing or excreting. Opening the shipping bags at this point to check the temp, or worse yet, to aerate the water will do more harm than good, as I will explain shortly.)

If the chilled seahorses are alive, they will begin to revive and move about as the shipping water very gradually warms up again. Once the bags have warmed up to room temperature or nearly so (judging from touch only), you may go ahead and open the bags and acclimate them as usual. Do not prolong the acclimation process at this point — once the chilled shipping bags have warmed up and been opened, it’s important to get the seahorses into the aquarium within 30 minutes or less.

If the seahorses fail to revive as the water warms up, you can proceed with the specified DOA procedures and your order will be replaced.

If the seahorse do not appear to have been severely chilled (i.e., they are moving, responsive, and breathing normally) when they arrive, go ahead and acclimate them normally as follows. Again, do not extend the acclimation process unduly!

Acclimating New Arrivals

Acclimating newly arrived seahorses properly after their transoceanic, cross-country journey is absolutely vital. It’s not like acclimating the new specimens you bring home after a quick trip back from your local fish store. The long distances and prolonged transit times involved make proper care of the new arrivals once they finally reach you a far more urgent matter. The reason for this is that all the while the seahorses are en route, they are excreting wastes and respiring in the dark shipping box — consuming oxygen (O2) and giving off carbon dioxide (CO2). That means two things: deadly ammonia is steadily building up in the shipping bag and the pH is steadily dropping, making the water more acidic.

This downward pH shift is actually helpful in that ammonia is less toxic at low pH and becomes much more toxic at higher pH. This is because ammonia exists in water in an equilibrium between two different forms — a nontoxic ionized form usually referred to as ammonium (NH4+) and an un-ionized form (NH3), which is highly toxic. Ammonium (NH4+) is completely harmless to fishes since the ionized ammonia molecule cannot cross the cell membrane and enter their cells. Note that only difference between harmless NH4+ and deadly NH3 is the addition of a hydrogen ion (H+), which converts toxic ammonia to nontoxic ammonium. At low pH, the extra hydrogen ions (H+) of acidic water are readily available to attach to the ammonia molecule, converting most of the ammonia to ammonium: NH3 + H+ —> NH4+. But at high pH, under alkaline conditions, exactly the opposite occurs. At high pH, the abundance of hydroxide ions (OH-) in alkaline water strips the extra hydrogen ion (H+) away from ammonium, rapidly converting most of it to deadly ammonia: OH- + NH4+ —> NH3 + H20. In other words, the higher (more alkaline) the pH, the more ammonia is present in the dangerous un-ionized form (NH3), which easily crosses cell membranes and enters the body.

This should make it easier to understand exactly what is happening in the shipping bag. As the seahorses breathe, consuming O2 and giving off CO2, the pH of the water drops and more of the ammonia (NH3) they produce is assimilated into harmless ammonium (NH4+). So the decrease in pH that occurs during long-distance shipping is actually protecting the new arrivals somewhat — until we open the shipping bag! Once the shipping bag is opened, CO2 begins offgassing from the bag water and fresh O2 begins entering the water, and as the pH begins to rise in response and return to normal, the ammonia in the water becomes increasingly poisonous. And when we begin to add alkaline water with a pH of 8.0-8.4 from the main tank to the shipping bag, we are accelerating the pH shift and converting ever more of the ammonium (NH4+) to deadly ammonia (NH3). The suddenly high concentration of ammonia in the water quickly diffuses into the seahorse’s cells, and acclimating the new arrivals becomes a race against ammonia poisoning just that quickly.

Acclimating farm-raised seahorses properly is therefore the art of achieving the proper balance between two conflicting needs: the need to get them out of the toxic shipping water as quickly as possible and the need to allow them to adjust to tank conditions as gradually as is practical. Drip acclimating the seahorses over a period of hours would expose them to dangerous ammonia levels for an extended period with harmful results, and adding an airline or otherwise aerating the seahorses in the shipping bag while they are acclimating, would likewise increase the levels of ammonia they were exposed to. If all goes well, it’s therefore important for the acclimation process to take no more than 20-30 minutes before your Ocean Riders are released into the main tank.

Whereas drip acclimating is definitely the way to go when you bring home delicate invertebrates that are highly sensitive to water quality from your LFS, such as live corals, starfish, and decorative shrimp, it would actually be quite counterproductive for seahorses that have just arrived all the way from Hawaii.

Here’s how to proceed:

1) Open the shipping box away from any bright lights. Remember that seahorses don’t have eyelids — removing them from total darkness and suddenly plunging them in bright light can be very stressful! Darken the room lights and turn off the aquarium lights before you remove the shipping bags from the box.

2) Float the unopened shipping bag(s) in your tank, or better yet in a clean container filled 2/3 of the way with water from the aquarium, for as long as necessary to equalize temperatures. (Those shipping bags can be dirty and germ laden!) In most cases, 10-15 minutes is all that’s necessary for the temperature adjustment, but during summertime heat waves or winter cold snaps it may take longer than that to equalize the temperature in the shipping bag with the aquarium water. As long as the shipping bags are unopened, you can take as much time as needed for this step of the acclimation process.

3) Once the temperature has been equalized, partially open the shipping bag and check the parameters of the shipping water (temperature, salinity or specific gravity, and especially the pH). Compare those readings to the conditions in the destination tank. That will tell how you quickly you can proceed with the acclimation process. The specific gravity is not that critical at all. Seahorses tolerate a wide range of salinities and are very adaptable in that regard. If the water in the shipping bag and the water in the destination tank are equal in temperature, and within 0.1-0.2 of each other in pH, you may introduce the seahorses to the tank right away without the need for any further acclimation. If the temp or pH are slightly off, you can acclimate the seahorses to tank conditions in one or two steps, as described below. And if the temp, pH, or specific gravity is off considerably, you will need to adjust the seahorses to tank conditions carefully in three or more steps.

4) The first of these steps is to add 1 cup of tank water to the shipping bag. Wait 10 minutes to allow the seahorses to adjust to any differences in tank water you just added.

5) Do NOT aerate the shipping bag while you are waiting. I know it seems a helpful thing to do, and your first inclination will be to add an airstone or airline to the shipping bag, but that can have disastrous consequences! Aerating the shipping water will accelerate the upward shift in pH and hasten the conversion of harmless ammonium (NH4+) to toxic ammonia (NH3). Aerating the shipping bag during acclimation will thus put the new arrivals at grave risk from ammonia poisoning! Don’t do it.

6) After 10 minutes have elapsed, remove 1 cup of water from the shipping bag and add another cup of water from the tank. Wait 10 minutes to allow the seahorses to adjust, and if they remain undistressed, repeat this procedure again. Judging from how great the initial discrepancy was in water quality parameters, this procedure can be repeated as often as necessary to adjust the seahorses to the tank conditions gradually, but try to complete the acclimation process within 30 minutes after the shipping bag was opened, if at all possible. In general, seahorses tolerate an accelerated acclimation procedure much better than prolonged exposure to ammonia in the shipping bag.

7) Observe the new arrivals closely for any signs of ammonia poisoning throughout the acclimation process. The symptoms to look are a loss of equilibrium, hyperexcitability, increased respiration and oxygen uptake, and increased heart rate. At extreme ammonia levels, fish may experience convulsions, coma, and death. Seahorses exposed to less extreme ammonia levels will struggle to breathe. They will be lethargic and exhibit rapid respiration. They may appear disoriented, periodically detaching from their hitching posts only to sink to the bottom. Don’t panic at the first sign of rapid breathing, but if you detect any of the more serious symptoms of ammonia toxicity, stop acclimating and get the seahorses into the destination tank immediately! Don’t hesitate! Your seahorses will tolerate an emergency transfer far better than they can withstand prolonged exposure to high levels of deadly ammonia in the shipping bag.

8) If all goes well, you can release the seahorses into the destination tank at your leisure following a 2- or 3-step acclimation process. I do not like to use an aquarium net to transfer seahorses, since their delicate fins and snouts can become entangled in the netting all too easily. I much prefer to transfer the seahorses by hand. Simply wet your hand and fingers (to avoid removing any of the seahorse’s protective slime coat) and scoop the seahorses in your hand. Allow them to curl their tail around your fingers and carefully cup their bodies in your hand to support them while you lift them out of the water. When you gently immerse your hand in the destination tank, the seahorse will release its grip and swim away as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Take care to get as little of the noxious water from the shipping bags as possible into the aquarium when you transfer the seahorses. Discard the impure shipping water when you are finished.

9) Leave the aquarium light off and let the seahorses settle down and adjust to their strange new surroundings at their own speed. Don’t attempt to feed them for the first day. Just give them plenty of room and allow them to settle in and investigate their new home in peace and quiet. Admire them from afar. The next morning you can turn on the aquarium light at the usual time and offer them their first meal.

Don’t let the discussion of ammonia poisoning and shipping stress above worry you. It’s not meant to alarm you in the least, only to explain why it’s important to complete the acclimation procedure quickly (which is why drip acclimating the seahorses is counterproductive and could even be harmful) and what to do in the extremely unlikely event an emergency should arise during acclimation. Ocean Rider stresses the proper acclimation procedure because they have occasionally had a problem in the past with experienced aquarists who felt they knew better and disregarded the acclimation instructions in favor of drip acclimation or a more prolonged process, to the detriment of their new arrivals. In all probability, your seahorses will arrive in excellent condition and not stressed out in the least, and even when shipping stress is a factor, the seahorses typically recover quickly and are back to normal by the following day.

As you can see, Donna, once you allow the shipping bags to gradually warm up to the ambient room temperature, acclimation following chilling during transportation is exactly the same as acclimating the seahorses under normal circumstances. I know of some instances when shipments were delayed during the wintertime and the water temperature in the shipping bags was below 40°F when the seahorses finally arrived, and it took the better part of the day to gradually warm the water in the shipping bags up to ambient room temperature, yet all of the seahorses recovered completely with no ill effects whatsoever following the above acclimation procedure for chilling.

So I know it’s hard to relax after sending of your precious cargo and trusting to the best, but I can assure you that something quite extraordinary would have to occur at this point in order to prevent the seahorses from making a safe journey and acclimating quickly to their new surroundings.

And after you have completed the move to Connecticut, you can always look forward to filling up those empty aquariums again.

Best of luck with the upcoming move and best wishes with all your fishes, Donna!

Pete Giwojna

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