Seahorses participate in showy courtship

It is February, and love is in the air. If you are single, it may seem like Valentine’s Day cannot come and go fast enough. Couples, new and old, are hoping their sweetheart performs a grand gesture of love.

As a result, you usually see disappointed people walking around on Feb. 15. These days our society is so dependent on smart phones, email and other impersonal forms of communication, it is easy to believe that our culture has forgotten what is true romance. You know, the kind of romance we saw in old movies and heard our grandparents recall in their stories of how they met.

However, we do not have to look far, but we must look closely, to realize romance is not dead. Here in our waters live true romance diehards – the common seahorse.

Seahorses are fascinating, endearing creatures that capture the heart of most all who encounter them. They are rarely seen in the wild due to their excellent camouflage. These fish often lack features we are accustomed to seeing on other fish. Projections on their body and their ability to change color help them to blend in to their surroundings. When we do get the opportunity to see them they are typically attached to seaweed with their prehensile tail.

These docile animals may appear to live a simple life but their mating ritual tells a different story. Male seahorses truly know how to court a lady. The male does not bother with simple chivalrous acts, like opening the door. He goes big and carries the babies for the female.

When a male and a female decide they like each other they begin to swim side by side, holding tails or twirling around the same piece of seaweed. This courtship process can last for days. After this initial period, a true dance begins and can last up to eight hours. The male seahorse has a brood pouch located on his front. During the courtship dance, the male will expand this area to show the female that it is empty and he is ready to be a dad. When the female’s eggs are ready, both seahorses let go of what they are holding onto with their tail and float up into the water snout-to-snout, forming what looks like a heart. The female puts hundreds of eggs into the male’s pouch. As the female releases her eggs, her body gets smaller while his pouch fattens. The male carries the eggs for several weeks until he gives birth to fully developed, tiny seahorses.

Seeing that seahorses know how to treat a lady provides hope for us who may think romance is dead. My hope is that our species can take a cue from these romantic animals. So take a hold of your sweetie’s hand, twirl them around, and dance with them. And thank you seahorses for showing us we should never settle for less than true romance.

* Eden Zang is an ocean naturalist and aquarist in the education and curatorial departments at the Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “the Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.