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Pas de Deux Champion freediver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank and friend off Kona
Vol. 11, No. 4
August/September 2008

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Magic Dragons 

story by Michael Shapiro

“The first time I saw one, I was speechless. I’m thinking, is it real? It was like seeing a van Gogh painting for the first time,” says Dana Lynn Remy, lead biologist at the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm. “It was magnificent.”

Ocean Rider, on the Kona coast, is already famous as the only seahorse farm in the United States—also the world’s first. Since opening in 1998, they’ve had unprecedented success in raising the American seahorse for the aquarium trade. But now, equipped with a decade of experience and a NOAA grant, they’re taking on a greater challenge: breeding the Mandarin emperor of seahorses, the sea dragon.

Sea dragons are rare; the three varieties—weedy, ribbon and leafy sea dragons—are endemic to the waters of southern Australia, where they are stringently protected. Australia grants only one permit a year to take a single pregnant male from the wild. (You read right: Seahorses and sea dragons are unique in that the young gestate in a pouch on the male’s tail.) The bizarre and beautiful sea dragon, particularly the leafy (which looks like what you’d get if you crossed a seahorse with flat-leaf parsley), is in demand among big public aquariums, which will pay $6,000 for a single animal. It’s money well spent, though; sea dragons are star attractions at aquariums, says Carol Cozzi-Schmarr, who founded the farm with her husband, Craig Schmarr. The Baltimore Aquarium, for example, made $20 million in just one year from its sea dragon exhibit.

But wild-caught sea dragons rarely last much longer than a few months, and they are—or have been up to now—virtually impossible to breed. If Ocean Rider’s track record with seahorses is any measure, after a few generations their captive-bred sea dragons will be robust enough to live for years in an aquarium, thus taking the heat off wild populations.

Ocean Rider received its first nine dragons—four leafys and five weedys—from Australia last April. At first they were sequestered in private tanks in the hope they’d “get busy.” Now, though, the dragons are on display, and visitors can view what Carol calls “the holy grail of the marine ornamental world.” HH

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm