Re:Seahorse Training Program — get certified now!

Pete Giwojna

Dear Dave:

Outstanding, sir! The training program is a correspondence course, which is conducted entirely via e-mail, so it is unavailable for downloading, but it would be it an honor and a privilege to enroll you in the Ocean Rider training program for new seahorse keepers, Dave, and I will get you started out with the first installment, which is a two-part lesson, right away. Look for it in your e-mail inbox later today, sir.

Any or all of your available aquariums would make superb seahorse setups, Dave. They all have the superior height that is so important for seahorses as well as plenty of water volume to provide exceptional stability and a very comfortable margin for error. The first lesson in the training program is devoted to selecting and equipping a suitable tank, and it will discuss the aquarium parameters to look for when deciding on a seahorse tank that is just right for your needs and interests, sir, so you’ll have a better idea of which tank you may wish to convert to a dedicated seahorse setup after you go over the first information packet.

Your plans to accommodate seadragons, however, will have to remain a project for the future, since none of the glorious dragons will be available for home hobbyists at this time, and that is likely to remain the case for some time to come.

This is what I usually advise home hobbyists regarding the fabulous seadragons, Dave:

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I share your fascination with seadragons — they are surely about the most exotic, spectacular aquarium specimens unimaginable!

Both Carol Cozzi-Schmarr and her husband Craig (Ocean Rider in Kona, Hawaii) and Tracy Warland (South Australia Seahorse Marine Services in Port Lincoln, Australia) have worked with farm-raised Seadragons. Rearing protocols for both the Leafy and Weedy Seadragons are under development at these aquaculture facilities, as well as at several zoos and large public aquaria that house captive populations of the dragons. For example, as I recall, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach California has successfully raised two broods of dragons in captivity and, at last report, the yearlings were even eating frozen food. I believe José Gomezjurado may also be working with captive-bred seadragons. But progress has been slow, and successful breeding in captivity has been very rare thus far, so these must be considered long-term projects aimed at the goal of someday raising domesticated dragons for zoos and public aquaria.

Rearing seadragon fry is actually straightforward and has not proven to be an obstacle at all. In fact, all of the seadragons currently on public display around the world were raised in captivity. However, this has been accomplished by procuring gravid males and allowing them to give birth in the aquarium. The adult males are then released back into the wild, and the resulting seadragon fry are raised using techniques very similar to the way seahorse fry are raised.

Closing the life cycle with seadragons has however proven to be extremely difficult. The domesticated dragons pair off, court, and breed in captivity fairly well, but successful egg transfers are rarely if ever accomplished. The females will ripen eggs and dutifully attempt to transfer them to receptive males, but for some as yet undetermined reason, the eggs almost always fail to adhere to the brood patch on the ventral surface of the male. It is this problem that is holding back captive breeding programs for seadragons.

These magnificent animals are the largest, fanciest, strangest and most fascinating of the seahorse’s relatives and a wonder to behold. For seahorse lovers, getting up close and personal with Seadragons is the ultimate experience, and I know hobbyists who have planned their entire vacations around the opportunity to visit an aquarium where seahorses and dragons were on display, often travelling thousands of miles for that rare privilege. For us hard-core fish fanatics and aficionados of aquatic equines, that’s better than a trip to Disney World any day.

The spectacular Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques) is surely the most ornate of all fishes and the most splendid example of protective mimicry one could ever imagine. Textbooks dryly describe the fabulous finnage of these mythical marvels as "lobate and spiny processes" extending from the body. In plain English that merely means that Phycodorus eques has developed extravagant, branching leaflike appendages all around the margins of its body. Twigs of this fantastic fleshy foliage sprout from its snout, its crest, and its rib cage, adding to its masterful disguise. So intricate, elaborate and profuse are these delicate leafy structures that they resemble the exquisite patterns of fine lacework doilies.

In short, the Leafy Seadragon looks like the result of some diabolical experiment in genetic engineering that involved splicing the genes of a seahorse with those of a seaweed. Only in this case the experiment seems to have gone slightly awry, yielding a chimerical creation that’s roughly 80% clump of Sargassum and only about 20% seahorse! Words simply don’t do it justice — only a photograph could begin to capture the intricate elegance of this miracle of evolution.

The Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), which grows to a length of 18 inches (46 cm), is another equally outrageous oddity of nature. It is not as fancy as the Leafy Seadragon but it is even larger and more colorful. Weedies have relatively sparse, wispy appendages but are adorned with bright yellow and red colors, which are crossed by several diagonal violet bars and often further augmented by a constellation of silvery-white dots adorning its dark midsection. The specimens from deeper water seem to have the most striking coloration, featuring intense reds and purples. When courting and mating, the diagonal bars become a brilliant fluorescent purple that all but glows.

My favorite description of the Seadragon’s bizarre beauty was penned by the Rev. J. E. Tenison-Wood in "Fish and Fisheries of New South Wales:"

[open quote] "It is the ghost of a Sea Horse, with its winding-sheet all in ribbons around it, and even as a ghost it seems in the very last stages of emaciation, literally all skin and grief. The process of development by which the fish attained to such a state must be the most miserable chapter in the history of natural selection. If this be the survival of the fittest, it is easy to understand what has become of the rest. . . . Never did the famishing spectres of the ancient mariner’s experience present such painful spectacles. If these creatures be horses, they must be the lineal descendents of those which were trained to live on nothing, but unfortunately perished ere the experiment had quite concluded.

"The odd thing about these strange fishes is that their tattered cerements are like in shape and color to the seaweeds they frequent, so they hide and feed with safety. Thus the long ends of ribs which seem to poke through the skin to excite our compassion are really protective resemblances, and serve to allure the prey more effectually within reach of these awful ghouls. . . . If this is [evolutionary] development, it stopped here only just in time; one step more and it would have been a bunch of kelp." [end quote]

Both of these spectacular species are native to the Wonderful Land of Oz. The Leafy and the Weedy Seadragon inhabit the temperate waters of southern Australia.

Like the male seahorse, the male seadragon carries the eggs, but in the case of the dragons, the males don’t get pregnant or undergo labor pains and birth spasms. They merely carry the eggs on the underside of their tails and ferry the embryonic young about until they hatch. The male seadragon lacks a pouch and the female simply glues the exposed eggs to a special place on the ventral surface of the male’s tail for safekeeping, where they embed partially.

Wild-caught Seadragons are fragile creatures that find the captive environment very stressful, and therefore only tank-raised specimens are sold for public display nowadays. The wild dragons proved so skittish that simply turning the room lights on or off in the display hall was often a deadly disruption for them. The sudden change in light intensity would send the delicate deep-water dragons careening around their tank in a blind panic and they would injure themselves by crashing into the sides of the aquarium or broach the surface and gulp air with fatal consequences. Flash photography from well-meaning visitors who hoped to capture an image of the fantastic fishes as a memento of their visit to the aquarium could produce the same result.

Tank-raised specimens are much more at home in the aquarium and have no such problems. Provided with pale night lights and dimmer switches on the light fixtures, they do quite well in the aquarium. As a result, the domesticated dragons now live as long as 9-10 years with good care (Warland, pers. comm.). Many of the domesticated dragons will readily accept frozen Mysis.

Before you get too excited, however, I should point out that domesticated dragons are completely beyond the reach of the home hobbyist. They are very costly animals and require very large, deep enclosures with carefully directed water currents in order to thrive. So unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford to pay an architect to build a new house for you designed around your seadragon system, our dream of keeping domesticated ‘dragons in our living rooms will have to remain just that — a favorite fantasy.

But don’t despair — there’s another way to live out such a fantasy that’s the next best thing. The good news is that when hardy, captive raised Seadragons that are accustomed to aquarium life become readily available, there isn’t a zoo or public aquarium in the country that won’t want to display them. Before long, we will no longer have to worship Seadragons from afar or plan a special summer vacation just to get a quick glimpse of them for they are sure to be on exhibit somewhere near to us all. Soon we’ll be able to visit them, observing them at our leisure and admiring their majesty and grace as often as we like.
<Close quote>

That’s the current status of domesticated dragons, Dave. They are tremendously popular display animals, and before long most everyone will be able to enjoy them at their local zoo or the nearest public aquarium. Leafy Seadragons will probably never be practical for the home hobbyist; they simply require too much depth and swimming space. Weedy Seadragons, on the other hand, can be kept in smaller, shallower aquaria with proper care, and it may someday be feasible for a dedicated hobbyists to keep juvenile weedies in a home aquarium. In fact, sir, the sort of large, tall, deep aquariums you have available right now would be very well suited for keeping weedy seadragons. But first the aquaculturists will have to overcome the sticky problem of those egg transfers…

Please allow me to introduce myself, Dave. My name is Pete Giwojna and I provide tech-support for Ocean Rider ( As you know, sir, part of my duties in that regard include providing a quick training course for new Ocean Rider customers and first-time buyers to get them up to speed on the aquarium care and requirements of seahorses.

The purpose of this training is twofold: (1) to assure that the hobbyist has a suitable aquarium, completely cycled and with the biofiltration fully established, ready and waiting when his seahorses arrive, and (2) to assure that the hobbyist has a good understanding of the aquarium care and requirements of Ocean Rider seahorses by the time he or she has completed the training and been certified. All of which will help to ensure that things go smoothly and that the home aquarist’s first experience with Ocean Rider seahorses is rewarding and enjoyable.

This basic training is very informal and completely free of charge, Dave. Ocean Rider provides the free training as a service to their customers and any other hobbyists who are interested in learning more about the care and keeping of seahorses. It’s a crash course on seahorse keeping consisting of 10 separate lessons covering the following subjects, and is conducted entirely via e-mail. There is no homework and there are no examinations or classes to attend or anything of that nature — just a lot of good, solid information on seahorses for you to read through and absorb as best you can, at your own speed, working at your computer from the comfort of your own home. The training course consists of a total of over 200 pages of text with more than 220 full color illustrations, broken down into 10 lessons covering the following subjects:

Lesson 1: Selecting a Suitable Aquarium & Optimizing It for Seahorses.
Tank dimensions and specifications (why height is important);
Tank location and aquarium stressors;
Setting up a SHOWLR tank to create ideal conditions for seahorses;
filtration options
protein skimmers
UV sterilizers
titanium grounding probe
water circulation
Test kits for monitoring water quality;
Aquascaping the seahorse tank;
artificial hitching posts
Basic aquarium setups for seahorses;
undergravel filters
sponge filters

Lesson 2: Cycling a New Aquarium & Installing the Cleanup Crew.
The nitrogen cycle;
nitrification and denitrification
Step-by-step instructions for cycling a new marine aquarium;
Seahorse-safe sanitation engineers and aquarium janitors;
microhermit crabs
cleaner shrimp
Starter seahorses (hardy, highly domesticated, high-health ponies)

Lesson 3: Reading Assignments (books, articles, and columns devoted to seahorses).

Lesson 4: Water Chemistry, Aquarium Maintenance, & Maintaining Optimum Water Quality.
Basic water quality parameters (acceptable range and optimum levels);
specific gravity
dissolved oxygen
Advanced water chemistry for reef keepers;
Performing partial water changes to maintain good water quality;
Aquarium maintenance schedule;

Lesson 5: Feeding Seahorses.
Frozen Mysis serves as their staple, everyday diet;
brands of frozen Mysis
thawing and preparing frozen Mysis
enriching with Vibrance
Recommended feeding regimen;
how to tell if your seahorse is getting enough to eat
Feeding tips for seahorses;
preparing and serving the frozen Mysis
feeding new arrivals
secretive feeders
morning feedings
setting up a feeding station
training the seahorses to use a feeding tray
artificial feeding stations
natural feeding stations
purchasing a ready-made feeding station
elevating the feeding station
fasting seahorses
target feeding
Mysis relicta from Piscine Energetics
Broadcast feeding or scatter feeding — just say no!

Lesson 6: Compatible Tankmates for Seahorses.
Safe and unsafe companions — no guarantees;
Tropical tankmates;
fish to avoid
seahorse-safe fish
seahorse-safe invertebrates
Feeding seahorses in a community tank;
Seahorse-proofing a reef tank
safe corals
unsafe corals
lighting the seahorse reef
managing water circulation for a seahorse reef

Lesson 7: Courtship & Breeding.
Courtship displays in Hippocampus (fully illustrated)
tilting and reciprocal quivering
pouch displays (pumping and ballooning)
copulatory rise and the egg transfer
Pair formation
Morning greetings
Male brooding — a true pregnancy
Giving birth — dawn deliveries

Lesson 8: Raising the Young.
Seahorse fry
Determining ease of rearing
Setting up a basic nursery for benthic babies
Advanced nursery tank options for pelagic fry
the shaded nursery
kriesel and pseudokreisel nurseries
the divided nursery
in-tank nurseries (illustrated)
the greenwater "starter" nursery
hyposalinity for pelagic fry
Delivery day
Culling the fry (if necessary)
Feeding the fry
hatching and enriching brine shrimp (Artemia)
decapsulated brine shrimp eggs
culturing rotifers and copepods
Fry feeding schedule

Lesson 9: Disease Prevention and Control.
Captive bred vs. wild-caught seahorses
Importance of High-Health seahorses
Seahorse anatomy illustrations
external anatomy
internal anatomy
Screening seahorses from your LFS
Quarantine tank
Quarantine protocol for pet-shop ponies and wild seahorses
Beta glucan boosts immunity to disease
Early detection of health problems
aquarium stressors
disease symptoms in seahorses
What to do at the first sign of a health problem
The seahorse-keepers medicine chest
first aid kit for seahorses
must-have medications to keep on hand
properties of the main medications
Life expectancy
Hepatic lipidosis (prevalence of fatty liver disease)
Seahorse disease book

Lesson 10: Mustangs and Sunbursts (Hippocampus erectus) & Acclimating New Arrivals.
Nature of Mustangs and Sunbursts
multi-generational approach to rearing
hybrid vigor
genetic diversity
selective breeding
Hippocampus erectus species summary
scientific name and common names
meristic counts and morphometric measurements (illustrated)
climate and distribution
color and pattern
breeding habits
breeding season
gestation period
brood size
pelagic/benthic fry
onset of sexual maturity
ease of rearing
natural habitats and natural history
preferred parameters and aquarium requirements
suggested stocking density
successful rearing protocols
feeding the fry
nursery tank designs
rearing and grow out tanks
diet and nutrition
color variations
temperature requirements
wide ranging species with different races
recommended reading
Acclimating new arrivals (step-by-step instructions)
Keeping and culturing red feeder shrimp (Halocaridina rubra)

The seahorse training program is a correspondence course that is conducted entirely via e-mail, Dave, and once we begin the lessons, I will be providing you with detailed information on all of the subjects above and answering any questions you may have about the material I present so that everything is perfectly clear to you. I will also be recommending seahorse-related articles for you to read and absorb online.

In short, Dave, the training course will teach you everything you need to know to keep your seahorses happy and healthy, and it will arm you with the information you need in order to tackle your first ponies with confidence. It will explain how to set up a new aquarium and optimize it to create ideal conditions for your seahorses.

How long this training will take to complete depends on your experience level as an aquarist to a large extent. For example, if you have never kept seahorses before and you do not already have a suitable saltwater aquarium up and running, it will take at least eight weeks for your training and preparations to be completed before you can be certified. It will take that long to learn the basics of seahorse keeping, set up a suitable aquarium, cycle the tank from scratch to establish the biological filtration, and optimize the tank to create an ideal environment for seahorses. Only then can you be certified ready to receive your first seahorses.

On the other hand, experienced marine aquarists and hobbyists that have had seahorses before and already have a suitable saltwater aquarium up and running can be certified much more quickly. I will run through the same basic information with them, but most of the information I provide will be familiar material for such hobbyists and they should be able to review it and get up to speed quickly, plus they should have well-established aquariums ready, fully matured that they can fairly quickly adapt in order to make them more ideal for seahorses. In a case like that, certification can be completed as soon as they have absorbed the material I provide and are confident they have a good grasp of the specialized requirements and aquarium care of the seahorses.

It doesn’t matter if you are new to saltwater aquarium keeping, Dave. The seahorse training program is geared for beginners and is designed to teach you all the fundamentals of good aquarium management as you progress through the lessons. I will also be recommending some good basic guidebooks for novices, and, of course, I will be working with you personally every step of the way through our ongoing correspondence until your new aquarium is ready for seahorses and you are well prepared to give them the best of care, regardless of how long that may take.

All we ask in return is that you stick with the highly domesticated Ocean Rider Mustangs or Sunbursts when you are finally ready to stock your tank, Dave. As you know, Mustangs and Sunbursts are the perfect ponies for beginners. They are hardy, highly adaptable, easy to feed, and perfectly adapted for aquarium life — the world’s only High-Health seahorses, guaranteed to be free of specific pathogens and parasites.

Best wishes with all your fishes, Dave!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support

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