Sea Sights

blog by Robyn Wyman-dill
We are in the mid-stretch of the Olympic Games. Where dreams are gold in Rio. In the excitement of champions being made, Dream Team USA inspires a new generation. As Michael Phelps moves through the water like a dolphin in a speedo. Since 776 BC, when the Ancient Greeks held their first Olympiad, the games have been a part of human history. (Although it is believed the games were held earlier, the first written records of the ancient Olympic Games date back to 776 BC, when a cook named Coroebus won the only event of the games – a 192-meter footrace called the stade (the origin of the modern “stadium”) and became the first Olympic champion). Over the next 12 centuries, the Games expanded, adding other athletic events up until AD 393, when Emperor Theodosius I decided to shut them down. Just because he thought they were too ‘pagan’.

Of course, the Olympics did rise again. But, not until the late 1800s.  The first modern Olympics was held in 1896, in Athens, Greece. Thanks to Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France,who founded the International Olympic Committee.

Now, while the world was watching the Games in Rio last week, I was making friends with sea horses. I know that sounds a little odd – considering seahorses or “horse sea monsters” are mainly found in seagrass beds, estuaries, coral reefs, and mangroves, and not on city streets where my car likes to roam. I suspect any connection to the Olympics may appear a bit far-fetched to you too. However, as it turns out, seahorses are world record holders. They are considered to be the slowest-moving fish on the planet. Being that they are such well below average swimmers, they tend to rest a lot. Usually, at the bottom with their prehensile tail wrapped around a stationary object.  It is a bit of an odd fish – as fishes go.

These slow-mows have a horse head and a pair of chameleon eyes that are capable of moving independently of each other, a coat that can change colors to suit its environment adeptly and a long tube of a snout that sucks in plankton like a vacuum cleaner. And, they swim the seven seas upright.  Not like the other fish, who swim sideways. This just in. Hippocampus zosterae (the dwarf seahorse currently holds a top speed of about 5 ft (1.5 m) per hour and remains the favored contender for last place in the big pool of life games. A place it has held for the last 3 million years.

Perhaps, it is because the Ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the seahorse as a symbol of strength and power with mystical significance that the sea horse has always held its own in popular culture. Their likeness is embedded on beach towels, club logos, cartoons, children’s books, tiles, chotskies, and art all over the globe. Including Rio.

How sea horses landed on our shores is a question that will never be addressed by any member of our homeowner’s association board. But, someone deep down inside this volunteer organization knows the real story behind the sea horse silhouettes attached to the entrances enclosing our community. A community named after a butterfly. The Monarch to be exact. And maybe that someone knows why the sea horses that landed here look so cheesy.

In real life, the sea horse is a relatively calm and mild-mannered creature and seems to have a unique partnership when it comes to reproduction – with the male giving birth. No other species on earth has that kind of an arrangement. Yet.

Now, about a month ago, I was going through the gate with a friend and she made this remark as we passed through them. “Oh, I like those sea horses.”

Now I’m a Monarch butterfly fan. I raise them as best as I can. It can be stressful parenting. So I was thinking, ‘it shoulda been butterflies,’ because they live here naturally but said, “I just love sea horses, don’t you?” And that started a whole conversation about sea horses that ended five minutes later.

Now you may ask, what isn’t an endangered species today and I agree the list is long but, the sea horse is worthy of our reason to care.

It is believed some 25 million seahorses are fished from the oceans every year. Add seahorse farms, and the 18 seahorse species now living in aquariums. The main offender is China where the sea horse falls prey to the booming trade in traditional medicine. Since 2012, the seahorse has been categorized as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

I had a birthday in July. When I did my friend, who liked the sea horse silhouettes, handed me a wad of paper in the shape of a big baby and told me to take it home. So I went home and unwrapped the wad of paper just like she said.

An oversized sea horse, craved in wood and painted with metallic silver, lay cradled in my arms.  The price tag was still stuck to the bottom and it read, $24.99 from TJ Max Home Goods. I guess that’s in case I want to return it for a butterfly statue later.

To be frank, it was not love at first sight, but it did make me laugh the minute I saw it. So I turned up the music and danced to the sounds of Can’t Stop the Feeling, by Justin Timberlake with the sea horse in my arms – over and over again.

The illegal trade of exotic animals is another threat to sea horse survival.

In 2005, sea horses were caught being smuggled into the US. The eight sea horses had already survived a 19-hour flight from Vietnam in a bag of oxygenated water, stashed in a cooler when they landed at Los Angeles International Airport. Sadly, the five males and three females – measuring about five inches long – were confiscated immediately by the authorities. As a threatened species that can be traded only under special regulations.

Since my first dance with the sea horse, I’ve noticed other sea horses are reaching out to me in hotels and restaurants, country clubs and cocktail napkins. The good news is the real deal is here too. Costa Mesa-based nonprofit Orange County Coastkeeper has been leading the charge in Upper Newport Bay to replant eelgrass, a form of underwater grass with green, slender blades that can help improve water quality and provide a suitable habitat for marine life. There have been sightings of these elusive creatures in the wild near Newport Beach this summer. The Pacific seahorse or Hippocampus ingens, which is typically found in the Pacific Ocean between San Diego and Peru, made a rare appearance in Newport Bay in May. Marking the tenth reported sighting of this species north of Baja – since the 1800s. And a rare seahorse was also discovered in someone’s octopus garden in Santa Ana. (Sea horses swim in the Thames river that runs through London too.)

Although it’s not easy to spot these elusive creatures, Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort, recently launched Moe B’s Radiant Rides, and hosts nighttime water jaunts with outfitters, Pirate Coast Paddle, where you may get lucky.  The one hour guided stand-up paddleboard excursions give you an opportunity to view marine only visible at night. The paddlers depart promptly from the dunes at 8 p.m., every Friday and Saturday night. The cost is $40 per person.

Upper Newport Bay’s  Back Bay Bistro, who is hosting Jazz Nights with Latin American jazz singer, Julia Vari on August 25, and Vince Ferragamo’s Wine Dinner with special guest, former LA Ram player, Dennis Hannah on August 18, will be open for drinks and dinner.  Reserve your seat.



Stay tuned.

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