The Pygmy seahorse was discovered at coral reefs at diving havens such as Pulau Sipadan, Mabul, Bohay Dulang and Bodgaya barely five years ago

KOTA KINABALU: A unique species of seahorse in Sabah’s east coast islands are under threat because of the actions of over-enthusiastic divers.

The pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti and H. denise) was discovered at coral reefs at diving havens such as Pulau Sipadan, Mabul, Bohay Dulang and Bodgaya barely five years ago. Since then, some dive operators have been bringing divers to known sites of these creatures that can blend with sea fans to serve as their habitat.

The Walea pygmy seahorse is one of five species named in a flurry of recent seahorse discoveries from coral reefs in the Red Sea and Indonesia. All five are less than an inch tall (2.5 centimeters) and are among the tiniest known vertebrates.

It was thanks to the keen eyes of underwater photographers and divers that these secretive specimens came to light.

The seahorses, described in December 2008 and January 2009 studies, are the first to be discovered in five years.

The Walea seahorse is named after an island in central Sulawesi, Indonesia—the only place it has so far been found.

Enthusiasm to view these creatures has also seen as many as 100 divers congregate on their habitat and use the flash to take their picture which could harm them.

Some divers have also been known to break off the sea fans and move them just to get a better angle for their pictures. These were some of the anecdotal reports that reached Universiti Malaysia Terengganu marine biologist Yeong Yee Ling who has been researching the creatures for the past three years.

Out of concern for these creatures, a two-day seminar was held recently at Pulau Mabul about the pygmy seahorse and the care needed in approaching them and their habitat.

The seminar involving Sabah Parks, was funded by Shell Malaysia’s Sustainable and Development Grant and attended by 57 participants that included most of the 15 dive operators based in Semporna town.

“Our hope is that the discussions from the seminar would eventually be synthesised into a code of conduct for divers. We are thankful the dive operators have been supportive of this effort,”