The Pacific North West holds many secrets in her waters. The curiosity of some might be piqued by stories of lost ships and sunken treasures still to be found. The imaginations of others by her vast shores, caves, reefs, and underwater lands waiting to be mapped and explored. And yet others are intrigued and baffled by her underwater citizens. In writing this week’s article, I was thinking of one of the most interesting creatures I have seen – the Pipefish.
When people think of Seahorses, the cold Pacific North West does not come to mind! But we do have a close relative. Get your wetsuit on (drysuit if you got one), because the chill is part of the thrill if you want to see one of these amazing creatures! While it’s true we don’t have Seahorses here within our Vancouver Island waters, we do have Pipefishes.
Much like Seahorses and Seadragons, Pipefishes are virtually invisible in their camouflage. One of the first things you see, if you’re lucky enough to happen upon one, is an elongated snout that assists them in nuzzling the sea floor and plants in search of tiny prey. They are toothless and have a long body (30-40 cm) with a slight triangular skeletal frame. This makes them look like a kind of underwater garden snake. The Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus) can be found in the shallow shores and sheltered areas along the BC Coast.
When you first see a Pipefish underwater it’s a bit of a surprise. There you are swimming around when suddenly, the eelgrass strands your looking at have eyes! Aside from being super cute, Pipefish share other similarities with Seahorses. Habitat loss and the human hand. Like Seahorses, Pipefish are not strong swimmers which makes it difficult for them to translocate. They love shallow waters with seagrass and eelgrass. Of course, these are the same seashore areas that we all recreate in; many of which are also affected by stormwater runoff from our coastal cities as well as industrial outfall. Human recreation and pollution of shallow waters all impact the survival of the Pipefish. The Bay Pipefish also experiences difficulties with bottom sediment being disturbed from boats who drag anchor, or anchor in coastal bays where sensitive eelgrass is present.
For all our single readers out there – want to date a Pipefish? You must learn how to do a fancy underwater dance show! They purposefully go into the sub-surface public arena and then wriggle and shake and snake around in an elaborate display to show ‘the one’ that they are worth it. If the date goes well, there may be a future for the newly bubbled weds – and dad better be ready because he is the one responsible for raising the young! That’s right, the male Pipefish gets all the rearing work so mom can rest! Which must be hard when you have no arms, no legs, and you steer through the water with your head movements. Hmmmmm, I don’t think I could catch my daughter with just my head, although that would probably make for an interesting show for anyone watching.
Sadly, like many other species, these little creatures have found their way into the Chinese medicine trade which has potential to threaten shallow water populations around the world.
You don’t have to be a diver to see one of these amazing little fishes, snorkelling in shallow waters around BC kelp forests and grassy bottoms is your best chance. Till next time … 😊
Bryce Casavant is a former BC Conservation Officer. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University. He writes for the Eagle from his home on Vancouver Island.