Of Pipes and Steeds in Sea

This Creature Feature aims to introduce you to an inhabitant of the Indian Ocean. Many of these creatures live not far offshore from some of ourfavourite beachside destinations. Let’s find out a little more about them.

May 2015 found me underwater in the Palk Bay documenting the incredible life forms tucked between the fronds of sea grasses that form vast underwater meadows. The scientist I was assisting wanted photographs of everything I could find, but was specifically interested in the number of seahorses I encountered. In 2001, the Government of India imposed a ban on seahorse collection. And yet, on 16 dives over four days, I observed and photographed only five individuals. In the beautifully bizarre underwater world off the Indian coastline,seahorses, pipe fish and their relatives are among the most obscure, outlandish and “un fish-like” residents of the Indian Ocean.

The cheeked pipe fish, Corythoich thysinsularis, grows only to about 12 cm. It is distinctly marked with bright red lines on the head and body. Pipe fish feed on small crustaceans like mysid shrimp and copepods. This individual was photographed in the Lakshadweep Islands.

Seahorses have a head and flexible neck somewhat resembling a horse. With an upright posture, a long, tube-like snout ending in a small mouth, and a strong prehensile tail that grabs onto almost anything for support, it is difficult to consider a seahorse as a kind of fish. And yet, the family of Syngn athidae,which includes seahorses, pipe fish and sea dragons, are in fact a family of fish – one that displays some of the most fascinating adaptations and camouflage in the marine world.

A yellow seahorse (Hippocampus kuda) with its tail wrapped around a sea pen, photographed in the Palk Bay off Tamil Nadu. Seahorses of the same species can vary significantly in color, and H. kuda comes in many shades of yellow, rust and brown.

Seahorses, in the sub-family Hippocampinae, are a prized sighting for divers and snorkelers. The smallest of the seahorses, the pygmy seahorses, often spend their entire adult lives on one Gorgonian fan coral. They are between 15 and 25 millimeters long from snout to tail and are found east of India, from Indonesia all the way to Australia and Japan. The seahorses in the Indian Ocean are generally larger in size. They prefer calm, sheltered waters and tend to inhabit shallow sea grass beds, estuaries, mangrove edges and near shore coral reefs. Although they are bony fish, they lack scales, and are instead covered in a thin skin stretched over bony, armour-like plates. Seahorses lack a caudal fin, or tail fin, typical of most other fish. And so, in order to swim they rapidly flutter their dorsal fin while using pectoral fins to steer themselves through the water. This is usually done in an awkward, upright position, and needless to say, they are terrible swimmers.

Unlike their seahorse cousins, pipe fish in the subfamily Syngnathinae lack the equine head and neck. They are slender and snake-like in body and tail, and the majority of pipe fish have some form of tail fin that makes them somewhat better swimmers. Pipe fish range from a few centimeters long to over 60 centimeters in length. They are also armored with rings and bony plates instead of scales. Their name is derived from the small, toothless, upward facing mouth located at the end of along tube.

Regardless of swimming ability, seahorses and pipe fish tend to remain close to or constantly in contact with the substrate.Many seahorses wrap their tails around sea grass fronds, algae, weeds, discarded ropes, etc and sit motionless in beautiful camouflage. Water currents flowing across the seabed bring mysid shrimp, cope pods and crustacean larvae past the waiting animal. Others, including most pipe fish, that actively feed on invertebrates off the seabed, swim in a stop-start manner that allows them to sneak up undetected to within striking distance of their prey. These fish then bring their mouths towards their prey with an upward pivoting of the neck joint. In the final moment of the lightning fast, 5-millisecond capture, the prey is sucked out of the water with a distinctive click.

Beyond bizarre appearances and awkward swimming techniques, seahorses and pipe fish are known for their extraordinary courtship and reproductive habits. Many species of seahorse and pipe fish pair bond for the entire breeding season, showing little interest in other individuals. Some species, however, change mates if the opportunity arises and a few of them breed in groups without displaying any mate preferences. Among individuals that do pair bond, courtship may extend for several days and is a complicated display that is thought to synchronize the reproductive states of the two animals. In comparison to their generally secretive lifestyles, the courtship dances of seahorses and pipe fish involve conspicuous shaking and whirling in unison with a lot of tail holding! And after all of this is done, the male gets pregnant!

An Ornate Ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)camouflages itself beautifully against a gorgonian fan coral. This is the most commonly observed species in the genus Solenostomus, and this individual was photographed off Nicholson Island in the Andamans.

That’s right – males in many of the species have brood pouches. Instead of the males providing the females with sperm, the females deposit their eggs into the pouch on the male. The male releases sperm into the brood pouch to fertilize the eggs and the pouch is sealed to form an incubator. In some species, the eggs become embedded in a spongy tissue within the pouch and the males actually provide calcium and lipids to the developing embryo. Most young seahorses and pipe fish are born as free-swimming miniatures that assume the behavior of their parents immediately.

Ghost pipe fish of the family Sole nostomidaeare close relatives to the pipe fish and sea horses of Syngnathidae. They differ in body structure with the presence of large,well-developed fins including a ventral and second dorsal fin.And unlike the seahorses and pipe fish, it is the larger female ghost pipe fish that brood the eggs in a pouch formed by their large ventral fins.

These spotted seahorses (Hippocampus trimaculatus) are found on the sea grass beds north of Rameswaram. Despite being declared a protected species, seahorses off Tamil Nadu are caught, dried,ground into powder to prevent identification and exported for traditional Chinese medicinal use.

The similar morphology between ghost pipe fish, pipe fish and seahorses has led to much confusion in the world of taxonomy.But for divers on a reef, encountering a ghost pipe fish – usually exceptionally well camouflaged against a fan coral or a piece of algae on the sand – is a rare and memorable thing.

An Ornate Ghost pipe fish (Solenostomusparadoxus) camouflages itself beautifully against a gorgonian fan coral. This is the most commonly observed species in the genus Sole nostomus, and this individual was photographed off Nicholson Island in the Andamans.

In my experience of taking people diving, seahorses, pipe fish and ghost pipe fish always elicit excitement in divers fortunate enough to see them. After all, they are exceptional in their digression from every other fish in the sea. But they are also fast disappearing. Despite the ban on seahorse collection, huge shipments of these animals are smuggled out to Southeast Asia every year for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities in traditional Chinese medicine. Pipe fish are becoming increasingly popular aquarium fish. And beyond this sort of targeted collection the increase in trawling is wiping out the habitats that these fish need. As numbers dwindle, the rare becomes even rarer, and an underwater encounter with these animals in the wild is one to be dearly cherished.

This article first appeared in the March-May 2016 issue of Saevus magazine.

About the Author /

Umeed Mistry began diving in the Maldives in 1996 – an experience that has significantly shaped his life and work. Now a PADI Staff Instructor, over the last 16 years he has introduced people with a range of personal, academic and scientific interests to the reefs in the Indian Ocean. In 2005 he began photographing underwater and tries to spend as much of his time shooting in the field. His work has appeared in a number of national and international publications – including Saevus, Asian Diver, UW360, Scuba Diver AustralAsia, Outlook Traveler and NatGeo Traveler. He is the recipient of several national and international photography awards, starting with the all India Better Photography Photographer of the Year 2007. With a keen interest in marine and freshwater ecosystems, and a multi- disciplinary approach to creating awareness of these ecosystems, Umeed also facilitates art residencies and education programs with his partners at Earth CoLab ( All of Umeed’s varied work – as a dive instructor, underwater photographer and cameraman, writer and educator – is driven by the desire to spark in others the same love he has for marine and freshwater spaces. His photography work, both terrestrial and marine, can be seen on Instagram @umeed.mistry

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