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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

UNDERSEA MEADOWS | Where the Seahorses Graze

Prior to these dives, my knowledge of seahorses was somewhat limited. I see them twice a year in the Musandam on weekend dive trips, which are usually the Great Seahorse (Hippocampus kellogi), one of the largest species that can grow to 30cm in height – always found at Octopus Rock. I’ve also seen the same species on a few dives in Dibba, Fujairah. I’ve seen the gorgeous, and very tiny Bargibant’s Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti) in Sabah, Malaysia that is so incredibly camouflaged, it mimics the Gorgonian Sea Fan (Muricella plectana) which it inhabits. Without a guide and a magnifying glass, I would never have seen one as they grow to a maximum height of 2.4cm.


Hippocampus kuda in Dubai

I’ve grown to adore all of these delicate mythical looking sea ponies, all thanks to Gordon’s obsession with diving in search of our local species, right off our own doorstep!


Seahorses are found worldwide, and there are 42 known species to exist. Here on the west coast in Dubai, we find in the shallow waters Common, Yellow, or Spotted Seahorse (Hippocampus kuda) that grow to 17cm, as opposed to our deep water larger species on the east coast, the Great Seahorse. I’m starting to question whether we are also seeing H. kuda’s smaller cousin here in Dubai, the Sea Pony (Hippocampus fuscus) which grows to 12cm and has a shorter snout than the H. kuda. It’s incredibly difficult to tell from the books as data is still deficient on some research and they are still discovering the species.


Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai

The H. kuda is a confirmed species from a DNA report done locally here in the UAE by Ahmed Al Ali in a pilot study with the United Arab Emirates University to an Arabian Gulf sampling he has done. Further DNA samplings need to happen to confirm the other species which we are looking forward to hearing about. The seahorses that they breed in captivity in a scientific lab of a govermental Aquarium, are the H. fuscus (identified by morphological properties such as trunk and tail rings, coronet shape, head length to snout length ratio, and pectoral fin ray number which hardly overlap with the H. kuda thus making identification easier in the lab.


We regularly visit our seahorse colony in Dubai, keeping a count on these great masters of disguise and generally obsessing over them. The Hippocampus kuda males are typically black and can have white spots, and the females yellow, sometimes with brown spots. They swim upright with the use of their tiny little dorsal fins, they anchor with their tails, they dance in courtship, and it’s the male who carries the female’s eggs and hatches them (as do all seahorses). They are truly fascinating!


We must not forget though, seahorses are highly sensitive to disturbance and we need to dive and photograph them with care in order to conserve their fragility within their habitats.


The H. kellogi is marked as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and the H. kuda is marked as Data Deficient. The H. fuscus has no record.


Welcome to our stables!

Gordon and I want to take you into a dive on how we photograph them with our setups. What is important here, is to be connected with nature, to take the time to get to know your animal, and then you will be rewarded in the most fantastic way.


The key is for the sea life to connect with you. If that seahorse does not want to be photographed and pulls away, then you are clearly stressing its space, your lights could be far too bright and unbearable for them, and that’s your cue to move away. Your subject will show YOU if they are comfortable to be photographed.


Photography with A GoPro

I have only ever used GoPros for my underwater photography and films as I have plenty of other camera gear to haul on my travels, and adding more weight to my equipment with a housing and strobes for my DSLR is not something I want to do.


GoPro underwater setup with Black Molly V: 2600 Lumens Video Lights by BigBlue.

On a positive note, I have found my underwater setup works really well for me, and I love the results I am able to get post edit.


I have taken a lot of time testing the Backscatter +15 MacroMate Mini Underwater Macro Lens. I originally used it with my GoPro 7 Black, but the field of view (FOV) only drops to linear which doesn’t get me close enough, and it can obscure the background. I wanted to get it to drop to narrow to get the sharpest edges, but this option is not available on my 7 or my 8, so I switched to my older GoPro, the Hero 5. Now there is less cropping to do for the composition I want.


Backscatter +15 MacroMate Mini Underwater Macro Lens

The trick is to be 3 inches (8cm) from your subject, or your shot will be out of focus if you are closer than, or further away. Whether you are in focus is not always clearly visible from the tiny monitor on the back of the GoPro, which can be frustrating – but this is down to whether you have perfect vision – which I sadly, no longer have.


Taking photos in macro is intrusive, so we take care to see how our subjects react to us being up close and personal. I make sure my video lights are set to the dimmest setting possible for macro, and then I’ll know if I’m invited to take those shots. Even with the lights at their dimmest however, you want to get the shots you need and then get those lights off the subject ASAP.


With the GoPro 5, I am limited to the photo quality at 12MP, but I make it work in post-production. I wish GoPro extended their RAW option from Wide Angle to all the FOVs. It’s not always about the camera type and technical aspects. There is nothing technical about taking photos with a GoPro, they are a video tool above all, but if you are passionate, you can take a photo with any camera and get outstanding results. You must absolutely have lights though. Light is key if you want anything worth showcasing. How you use those lights, will determine the results.


Remember, “The best camera, is the one that you have with you!” – Chase Jarvis. And most importantly, knowing how to use the tool you have.


My setup allows me to mount two GoPros side by side. My 8 is set to Wide Angle with RAW as my priority. If one of my GoPros fails to operate (as has happened on several occasions), I always have a backup to get shots no matter what, but it also means I have two FOV options.


I use the Black Molly V: 2600 Lumens Video Lights by BigBlue which I reviewed back in the Divers for the Environment September 2022 magazine issue where you can clearly see examples of what images look like with, and without lights. These lights also come with built-in red LEDs for enhanced focusing and night video work, and a yellow removable filter. They have been a fantastic investment. The lowest light setting for macro provides the colour temperature I need with the wide angle 120-degree beam, and they have been accepted by the seahorses so far. I have been rejected when I had the settings any higher. This is so important and must be respected.


PHOTOGRAPHY WITH A DSLR: NIKON

Ah seahorses! One of my favourite creatures to photograph (after nudibranchs) and observe. You can get very close to them and watch their eyes move around looking back at you.


Hippocampus kuda in Dubai

I rarely ever came across one when I lived in Saudi, their camouflage was so perfect and I probably didn’t even notice them. However, after many years of diving, I am now more aware of how to find these creatures which are living in the waters of almost every country that has a marine coastline.


Unlike Ally, I shoot underwater with a DSLR in a waterproof housing. My current cameras are Nikons and the two housings I use are made by Sea&Sea. Lighting is done using Sea&Sea YS-D3 strobes, and I have used various Sea&Sea strobes for over 30 years and very happy with the results obtained using them. These strobes are connected to my camera through the housing using an electronic cable, not fibre optic. This means I’m not using the camera flash to trigger the strobes and the camera battery will easily last 500+ shots before recharging.


Nikon and Sea&Sea underwater setup

I also use focus lights made by Light and Motion, the Sola 1200 and Sola 800. The reason I use these lights is that they have a red-light function as well as white light, and this is very useful when illuminating creatures that are easily disturbed by white light. Seahorses are a perfect example, and I get rather upset at times when I see people attempting to film or photograph seahorses with what looks like a couple of car headlights on full beam pushing into the soft corals when I dive off the east coast of the UAE, no wonder the poor creatures get stressed out. Usually back on the boat, I will mention to anyone taking photos of seahorses to be mindful of using their lights on them. The best method of lighting is to use strobes.


Prior to the COVID lockdown, I also started using an Olympus TG5 and subsequently a TG6 primarily for video, but I have used it for still photography also. The sensor size on this camera is small, I believe similar to the GoPro, but with more versatility and depending on which housing you put it in, additional lenses can be attached for macro or wide angle, but the Olympus built-in macro system is very powerful, and so far, I’ve found that an additional lens has been unnecessary.


For my DSLRs I use specific prime macro lenses manufactured by Nikon and have four in my collection. All of them will go down to 1:1 so I get exact life size imaging. The magnification can be increased by adding a wet dioptre such as a +5 or +10 on an adaptor that can easily be moved in front of the camera port for any creature that is less than 20mm in size. My general “go to” lens is the 60mm and depending on what I plan to shoot, I will also use the 105mm lens if the water is clear enough or if I want to get in really close with a +10 for creatures the size of a grain of rice.


Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai
Hippocampus kuda in Dubai

My preference for shooting the H. kellogi, is to use the 40mm lens, as, due to its large size, this seahorse is really challenging to shoot with a longer focal lens in UAE waters where the visibility is variable and generally not that great. Fortunately, the port on my DSLR housing can accommodate the 40mm, 60mm and 85mm lenses, and I only have to change ports when using the 105mm lens which requires a longer port.


Hippocampus kellogi in Fujairah
Hippocampus kellogi in Fujairah
Hippocampus kellogi in Fujairah

Recently I have tried shooting with a snoot, which is a device added to the front end of a strobe that focuses the light on the subject and not the background. This system has proved quite challenging at times as I now have to use autofocus on my camera, something that I have had to resort to as I don’t have three hands.


The snoot is connected to a BackScatter MiniStrobe Mk1 (at present) and that strobe is slaved off one of my Sea&Sea YS-D3s using a fibre optic cable.


Shooting the Hippocampus kuda with a snoot
Shooting the Hippocampus kuda with a snoot
Shooting the Hippocampus kuda with a snoot


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