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September 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Seahorses off Long Beach, CA

from the September, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Retired teacher Roger Hanson, 68, is enchanted by what he discovers diving. He's built his own seahorse city from palm fronds and pine branches on the seabed of Long Beach bay. If you get him talking about seahorses, he'll tell you exactly how many times he's seen them, describe their personalities in detail, and tell who is dating whom.

Hanson is a retired schoolteacher, not a scientist, but experts say he probably has spent more time with Pacific seahorses than anyone else on Earth.

Over the last three years, Hanson has made the two-hour trek from his home in Moreno Valley to the shoreline of Long Beach to visit his seahorses about every five days. To avoid traffic, he often leaves at 2 a.m. and then sleeps in his car when he arrives.

He makes careful notes after all his dives in a colorful handmade logbook he stores in a three-ring binder. He dutifully records the water temperature, the length of the dive, the greatest depth, and visibility, as well as the precise location of each seahorse. His notes also include phase of the moon, the tidal currents, and the strength of the UV rays.

Hanson will also tell you that getting to know these strange, almost mythical beings has profoundly affected his life.

"I swear, it has made me a better human being," he says. "On land I'm very C-minus, but underwater, I'm Mensa."

Hanson's seahorse story traces back to December 2000, diving off Shaw's Cove at Laguna Beach, when he had a close encounter with a gray whale. It was a life-changing experience that made him want to always live at the beach. He got a job as a special education teacher, bought a van and lived in it at the beach before eventually moving to the Moreno Valley.

He saw his first seahorses there as recently as 2016, probably ridden north with an unusual pulse of warmer water.

He built a crib for them away from shallow water, and by July, two pairs of seahorses had moved in. That was the beginning of a colony.

Pacific seahorses are among the largest members of the seahorse family. Males can grow up to 14 inches long, while females generally top out at about 11 inches. They come in a variety of colors, including orange, maroon, brown, and yellow. They are talented at camouflage and can alter the color of their exoskeleton to blend into their environment.

In June 2017, Hanson began formally tracking seahorses and became aided by a young scuba instructor, Ashley Arnold, a former Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She learned to dive as part of a program the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs hospital offered to female veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma. Arnold suffered from both. Diving became her salvation.

She used her GI Bill to pay for a scuba instructor course and to set up her own business. Now, she finds that if she dives at least twice a week and has a dog, she does not need to take medication.

Arnold and her boyfriend, Jake Fitzgerald, check in on the seahorses about once a week and help Roger maintain the city he created for them. Hanson and Arnold are very protective of their seahorse family. They tell visitors to remove GPS tags from their photos and swear them to secrecy.

"To my knowledge, these are the only people tracking Hippocampus ingens directly," says Amanda Vincent, a professor at the University of British Columbia and director of the marine conservation group Project Seahorse. "Many people love seahorses, but Roger's absorption with them is definitely distinctive. There's a degree of warm obsession there, perhaps."

(Abstracted from an article by Deborah Netburn in the Los Angeles Times)

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