Sydney's Fairytale Seahorses

The MV Freshwater, the famed Manly ferry, draws in at the wharf as pedestrians scuttle between the barriers, umbrellas still holsted as the first few drops of rain appear. Dave is looking a bit glum - it’s not the perfect day he’d hoped for. No matter. We’re headed underwater into another world ... Dave’s world, a place that few Sydneysiders get to see and home to an unfeasible creature, half horse, half fish. 

“Seahorses ...”, Dave says “... are in the top of the list of things all divers want to see”. He says they hold an almost mythical fascination with people and they live right here, in one of the busiest city ports in Australia. 

Dave’s a big guy, tall with a neat, bushy grey beard. He wears a blue-camo skull cap and has jolly roger ear-rings. He’s met with a smile and warmth wherever he goes. His organisation Ecodivers, “a group of Ninja divers” are “masked avengers”, with a mission to encourage responsible management of Sydney’s waterways and the protection of wildlife, particularly seahorses. 

We slip into the waves, the surface spotted by a million rain drops. The water is chilly but we’re rugged up in wet suits and don’t have time to notice. To distract us, there are cuttlefish, adorned like Turkish rugs, eel-like fish, sponges and even a passing stingray. 

Manly Harbour has a netted swimming zone, originally set up to protect people from sharks. Truth be told, most swim outside the nets and the danger is over-stated. In Dave’s opinion, the net probably does more to protect sharks from people. They are made from heavy, woven nylon and those here in Manly were recently replaced, ehich means they don’t have as much habitat value as nets in other parts of the harbour. 

The old nets are like a “hotel” for sea horses, Dave tells us. Wildlife is important not only for the health of the harbour and as a valuable part of Sydney’s natural history and culture, seahorses are also protected by law. Nevertheless, the maintenance of the nets has until recently been done without consideration for the thriving little metropolis of seahorses, pipefish, seaweed and algea that build on nets.

Ecodivers has been encouraging councils like Manly to change nets slowly, staggering their replacement in sections, keeping some habitat alive and giving seahorses a chance to recolonise. It seems like common sense - in places where Ecodivers have been able to assist - the nets are still home to hundreds of seahorses.  

In Manly, where the net was replaced suddenly, there has been no effort to foster enough covering of weed and sponges to become a walled garden for seahorses. It takes a long time to re-establish and for the time being, we have to head along the bottom, where we find  one seahorse, living just metres from the shore. It’s hard to spot hanging below a small sponge. It looks back at us with an empty gaze and effortlessly glides out of view ... its second line of defense, when it knows its cover has been blown.

When you’ve got seahorses, you know you’ve got things just about right, that the harbour is healthy. It’s the perfect combination - an animal that helps monitor harbour health and is a source of fun for Sydney's divers. 

For many of them, seahorses are an emblem of Sydney Harbour. If we turned the city upside down, they’d be as recognisable as the butterflies in our garden or the Rainbow Lorikeets that adorn the trees in Sydney’s parks. 

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Ecodivers www.ecodivers.org.au is a small, local marine conservation organisation with volunteers and supporters that speak up for and act on behalf of all marine animals and their ocean home. 

Saving the planet ..one fish at a time" ... "after all ... It's the environment ... or nothing"

If you want to see a seahorse or experience Sydney Harbour's underwater wild side, follow one of the links (below) and enquire about diving in Manly.