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Glorietta Bay yields the beautiful, elusive seahorse

Wake-up call to the Navy’s nighttime dredging operation

At least ten inches from tail tip to coronet, she glowed in majestic awesomeness.
  • At least ten inches from tail tip to coronet, she glowed in majestic awesomeness.
  • Image by Neal Matthews

She rose from afternoon slumbers with something pinching her tail. Three feet below the surface of San Diego Bay her equine head, crowned with a five-point coronet, poked through a blanket of eel grass. Alarm widened her two glistening brown eyes as she tried to dart away into deeper water. But I wasn’t about to let her go now.

Stingray Point, an isolated crescent beach that gives way to teeming eel grass and oyster beds off the golf course’s 17th fairway. Generations of Coronado high school kids have snuck over to it after dark to booze and carouse.

Stingray Point, an isolated crescent beach that gives way to teeming eel grass and oyster beds off the golf course’s 17th fairway. Generations of Coronado high school kids have snuck over to it after dark to booze and carouse.

This was February 27, 2014, and I’d been searching for a seahorse almost daily since the previous summer. I swim in Glorietta Bay, located eight miles from the mouth of San Diego Bay, between the Coronado Golf Course and the Naval Amphibious Base, wearing fins and a mask and snorkel, and I always carry a compact underwater camera. In the summer of ’13, a paddleboarder named Lorton Mitchell, a Coronado custom-home builder, youth sports coach, and waterman — who died from a rare cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma, in March 2015 — told a friend of mine that he’d encountered a seahorse on the surface near Stingray Point. This is an isolated crescent beach that gives way to teeming eel grass and oyster beds off the golf course’s 17th fairway. Generations of Coronado high school kids have snuck over to it after dark to booze and carouse on a sliver of sand behind the Coronado Bridge.

As I held on to her tail she swung her head backward toward my hand as if to attack, but with what? She has no teeth.

As I held on to her tail she swung her head backward toward my hand as if to attack, but with what? She has no teeth.

Even though I’ve swum the quarter mile over to Stingray Point from the beach at Glorietta Bay Park dozens of times, it’s never boring. The crossing is within sight of the Hotel Del Coronado’s witch-hatted roofline and is so much fun it’s illegal; the Unified Port District prohibits swimming in boat transit lanes. But the eel-grass nurseries, which harbor at least 28 species of fish, usually gift my hungry camera with a surprise bait ball, shore bird, invertebrate, shark egg packet, turtle bone, seashell, or molted crab exoskeleton. Amid death’s detritus, the denizens of the largest embayment between San Francisco and Scammon’s Lagoon hearten me every day.

Dungeness crab, Ferry Landing. The seahorse stayed vertical, seemingly befuddled that I hadn’t eaten her like one of her Dungeness crab enemies.

Dungeness crab, Ferry Landing. The seahorse stayed vertical, seemingly befuddled that I hadn’t eaten her like one of her Dungeness crab enemies.

Seeing and photographing a seahorse in the shallows became my mission after Mitchell spotted her that summer. The water dipped into the mid-50s early in 2014, and my faltering body made clear its intentions to lie down and move as little as possible all winter. Photographing a sea pony became a motivational goal just when I needed it most.

When I spied the recumbent seahorse that sunny afternoon I could relate. This was my customary siesta time, too.

Dredging barge in the middle of Glorietta Bay, where it was kept during the day before being moved over to the 
piers at night where the dredging took place.

Dredging barge in the middle of Glorietta Bay, where it was kept during the day before being moved over to the piers at night where the dredging took place.

It’s been years since I’ve been able to walk a straight line. Lymphoma. Chemo. Stem cells from my brother. Neuropathy. When the treatments became more damaging than the disease I went cold turkey and halted all drugs and interventions. Swimming is my medicine now, and only the rain interrupts the dousing. I had the fever to find the seahorse, but how often do your most ardent hopes pan out? I was jaded about the utility and futility of hope, which had been failing me for years as I grew weaker and the medical options turned experimental. Even under a full wetsuit I was already shivering when I spotted those golden ridges and scalloped eyebrows half buried in the bottom. This was one of the lowest tides of the month, a foot and a half below average low tide, and I’d pulled on my mask and fins at about 3 p.m. to catch the ebb before dark. This way, I’d be able to float above eel grass that’s usually in deeper water.

Spotted stingray, Glorietta Bay - one of the remorseless tribes I’ve seen that represent mortal threats to the few sea ponies.

Spotted stingray, Glorietta Bay - one of the remorseless tribes I’ve seen that represent mortal threats to the few sea ponies.

First came the tawny color, then those segmented muscles — the jolt of recognition, and my veins went all warm inside. Thrill me to the (transplanted) marrroowww. The shivering stopped. Sometimes when you achieve something you’ve been yearning for it’s a letdown. This was not one of those times.

Her jumbo stature compounded the surprise. At least ten inches from tail tip to coronet, she glowed in majestic awesomeness. For once the word awesome is accurate. Hippocampus ingens, the giant Pacific Seahorse, the largest of the world’s 48 species. As I held on to her tail she swung her head backward toward my hand as if to attack, but with what? She has no teeth. Completely defenseless, fragile, supple, radiant in the fading light, I felt unworthy of the power I had to rouse and manhandle such delicate beauty.

I knew it was a female because I’d graduated from first grade: she lacked the distended brood pouch where the babies are carried by the males. Her coronet was more prominent than a male’s, and her gossamer dorsal fin was lower on her back. I maneuvered her up into my palm and loosely wrapped her iconic shapeliness in my fingers. Her tail curled around my left pinkie. It was hard to accept this as actually happening. Stunned, we stared at each other in disbelief. I started shooting pictures to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Navanax inermis, predatory sea hare, Glorietta Bay

Navanax inermis, predatory sea hare, Glorietta Bay

We hadn’t moved much, so I put her down in the eel grass close to where I found her. She stayed vertical, seemingly befuddled that I hadn’t eaten her like one of her Dungeness crab enemies, and her regal head remained motionless as I aimed the camera at her from all sides. My pulse felt audible under my swim cap. Could she hear it, too? With her surprisingly sentient left eye she watched me drift away into the blue/green haze toward the bridge.

I rolled onto on my back and spit out the snorkel, finally breathing deep and slow. I couldn’t stifle the high-pitched whoop of a monster in a seahorse’s dream, already second-guessing whether I should have touched her. The phantom pleasure of her ribbed strength still warmed my palm. The whole encounter lasted about two minutes. Late light varnished the bridge columns under a flashing blue ribbon of steel. On the slow swim back across the boat channel, hoping the Harbor Police were sipping coffee at the Coronado Yacht Club, I started shivering again, and not just from the cold.

The Great California Seahorse

Going on three years later I still tremble with seahorse fever. On those mornings when it’s overcast, or my feet and legs are hurting more than usual, or the cold bay water trickling down my spine holds no appeal, it is the chance of seeing a seahorse (and the avoidance of another spinal tap) that gets me out there. In a way, she saved me. I have yet to see another one, and the more I learn about them and their tenuous future in the early stages of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, the more precious the experience becomes.

The earliest seahorse sighting in San Diego Bay was in 1857, when five specimens of a previously unknown species were collected by a survey explorer with the Army’s Topographic Bureau. A Pacific railroad line was urgently needed between the Mississippi River and the West Coast, and in 1853 a series of government-funded expeditions fanned out. They included naturalists who were supplied by the Smithsonian for collecting plants and animals along potential iron-horse routes. The survey’s fish expert, Charles Girard, who became the Smithsonian’s first curator of fishes, examined the five seahorse specimens collected in San Diego Bay and recognized them as new to science. He bestowed their species name, ingens, from the Greek, meaning extraordinary, huge, colossal, unnatural. The Pacific Seahorse was named for both the railroad and the ocean. In Volume 10 of the 12-volume Pacific Survey Reports published by the War Department just before the Civil War, Girard headlined his written description of the five San Diego specimens with a better name, “The Great California Sea-Horse.”

So the golden creature I beheld is a national treasure, a living link to our deepest cultural roots. They’ve been noted in scientific literature as appearing in San Diego Bay only a few times since then, including a citation in 1964 by Dr. Carl Hubbs, famed ichthyologist and professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Seahorses are so rare in San Diego Bay that every few years they are seemingly re-discovered. A five-year study of the fish assemblages in the bay conducted from July 1994 to April 1999 yielded a total of 497,344 individual fishes belonging to 78 species, but turned up only 13 seahorses. A 2012 survey of fish in the bay found one single seahorse.

The range of the Pacific Seahorse is from Peru north to Newport Bay. Their main threats are sea-level rise, warming water temperatures, and coastal development that lead to habitat loss, primarily eel grass. And while there is no organized fishery for Pacific Seahorses, they are still a valuable by-catch in nets targeting other fish. Curios, trinkets, Chinese medicine, the usual culprits busy wiping out the world’s megafauna are decimating the only seahorse species in the Eastern Pacific. According to the entry for the Pacific Seahorse on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, “local estimates of population declines of between 50 and 90 percent have been reported. It is therefore conservatively suspected that population declines of at least 30 percent have taken place over a period of ten years, and that declines are continuing.” The organization classifies the Pacific Seahorse population as “vulnerable.”

As individuals, seahorses exist in a state of intrinsic jeopardy throughout their short lives (99 percent infant mortality rate, two- to five-year lifespan), beginning the minute they exit their father’s marsupium. As Herman Melville pointed out so eloquently in Moby-Dick, the sea is not only “…a foe to man who is an alien to it, but it is also a fiend to its own offspring.” It dashes the mightiest whales against the rocks beside the wrecks of ships, and “Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of shark. Consider…the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”

Glancing back through my bay photos, here’s a partial list of just the remorseless tribes I’ve seen that represent mortal threats to the few sea ponies in San Diego Bay: stingrays, spotted bay bass, halibut, shovel-nosed guitarfish, angel sharks, horn sharks, Dungeness crabs, corvina, mullet, sea lions, pelicans, cormorants, grebes, egrets, herons, gulls, ospreys. People, of course. And the most powerful tribe in the sea, the U.S. Navy.

Raking muck

One bright morning in April 2016 I was horrified to discover, positioned in the middle of Glorietta Bay, a huge crane on a barge with a separate scow and a tugboat. Multi-ton clam-shell dredge claws rested on the barge beside a massive shipping dumpster. The vessels were stationed almost directly above a large eel grass “mitigation” bed maintained by the state as insurance against eel grass lost to new construction in the bay. My first thought was, seahorses live in very small territories, spending almost their whole lives within just a few square yards of bottom, so they don’t have the option of moving out of the way. My second thought was, I’m here almost every day. How could I not have known this was coming?

Paddleboarders and kayakers were sliding around the behemoth, which blocked my usual path swimming straight out toward the end of the 15 piers of the Naval Amphibious Base. It took about ten minutes of worried swimming through unusually cloudy water to bring me alongside the thing. I could see hard-hatted workers wrangling barge tackle and when they spotted me I waved.

“Hey, are you guys dredging? I’m kind of concerned about what I’m swimming through.”

“Yes,” the one in the red hard hat responded. He gestured to the Amphib Base docks. “It’s for the Navy. We have all the permits, the EPA permits. You can contact them.”

I could dramatize many of the events that took place over the next few weeks, like teasing out that this was a contaminant removal operation, and the contaminants included carcinogens such as arsenic, copper, mercury, and zinc, chlorinated pesticides, benzo pyrene, and a toxic soup of other compounds. But the facts don’t need pumping up to disturb anyone interested in healthy seahorse (or human) habitat. Being in the water every day, my interests and those of the seahorse had converged, and I felt offended for both of us.

This isn’t an attack on the Navy. I was a happy member of that tribe for four years. The Navy introduced me to the nether reaches of the bay bottom during Navy diver school (2nd Class SCUBA), which in 1973 was still located on a leaky barge at the 32nd Street Naval Station. (All Navy diver training now takes place in Panama City, Florida.) During night watch one of our duties was to lower a long measuring stick into the oily bilges to see how much water we were taking on. The bilge water we pumped out went right back into the bay. The students joked about the ingredients in the bottom muck where we trained day and night, but surely Uncle Sam wouldn’t knowingly expose his boys to poisonous contaminants, right?

Now, 43 years later, the Navy has me swimming through toxic muck again. Surely they must know there will be no harm to me or the dozens of other swimmers who use Glorietta Bay, not to mention the people who rent paddleboards at the Coronado Boat House and the children who play on the public beach right beside the Amphib Base, less than 100 yards from the dredging. But I’m old and immune-compromised now, and exposure to harmful toxins isn’t as funny as it was at 20.

The Army Corps of Engineers issues the permits for Navy dredging, and when I called to ask how I could not have known this project was being green-lighted, the response was, “Are you on the email list?”

What email list? Only those on the Corps of Engineers’ email list are notified about pending permits. Unlike the California Coastal Commission, the Corps doesn’t post signs at the locations where major projects are being considered, so you have to be in the know in order to proffer a comment or question into the record during the 30-day public review window. That window came and went a year before the dredging commenced in Glorietta Bay. I’m on the email list now, but even that required filling out forms and some sort of background check.

The dredging was taking place at night, when the barge and scow were moved by the tugboat over between the Navy piers. Every time the clam shell was dropped to the bottom, its jaws closed and then raised to dump the silty sand into the scow, thick plumes of bottom mud were stirred up and spread out in the tidal currents. The contractors were supposed to have a “turbidity curtain” held up by booms around the barge, but this didn’t prevent a huge plume of turbidity from moving off into Glorietta Bay, whose backwaters don’t receive much circulation from the outer bay’s currents.

Of the approximately 34,493 cubic yards of material that was to be dredged, most of it was to be dumped in the ocean at an offshore dump site, about 7325 cubic yards were used as fill in and around the bay, and 3186 cubic yards were too toxic to be re-used or dumped at sea. This hazardous material, instead of being left buried and undisturbed, was brought up, dried out, and then filled 213 dump trucks for hazardous waste disposal on land.

For the more than two months the dredging was underway last spring, I shot pictures of the silt raining down on the eel grass as the turbidity blotted the vital sunlight. According to the 2000-page, 2014 fiscal year report on the dredging, which was filed with the state water board, the Navy had determined that about three quarters of an acre of eel grass would be destroyed by the dredging, all of it within the Amphib Base property line along the bay bottom, and any negative effects from the plume would be minor and temporary. (All eel grass in Southern California is protected by state law; the Navy uses transplanted eel-grass beds south of the Amphib Base as mitigation banks, where it is allowed to replace eel grass it destroys elsewhere.) Maybe that’s true, but it was still painful to see the silt storm raining down on my benthic friends, covering eel-grass blades as well as the fish and snail eggs so many creatures, including birds, depend on. In a fathom of water one morning, I watched tiny turban snails hatch out of their worm-like natal gel and go looking for their first meal on grass blades coated with dredge silt. I wish I could unsee that. I sent a picture of it to the Navy Environmental Protection Agency representatives and got the same response they’d given to all the other images I sent them: nothing. Crickets. (A copy of this story was sent to the Naval Base Coronado public affairs office for comment or response. There has been no reply.)

I requested formally that the Corps of Engineers dredging permit be reopened, so that I might question the idea of dredging up toxins and spreading them throughout the bay, and asking whether the Navy should take responsibility for damaging the eel grass outside the base perimeter. Of course that request was denied. On September 18, 2014, the commanding officer of Naval Base Coronado, Capt. Christopher E. Sund, had given the project a waiver, called a Categorical Exclusion, from having to perform an environmental impact report on the dredging, and the Navy wasn’t going to be second-guessed by some ex-swabbie.

But there was plenty of reason for second guessing. In May of 2016, just as the Glorietta Bay dredging was commencing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that dredging overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the harbor of Miami had created a plume that caused widespread damage to the nearby coral reef. Environmentalists had warned that this could happen, but the Corps insisted their fears were misplaced. Now the Navy and the Corps were saying the dredge plume they created in Glorietta Bay was no big deal. What basis did I have for taking their word for it?

My unease grew as I read through the waiver from environmental review that the Navy had bestowed on itself. For instance, there was prior dredging, in 1997–’98, which found a lot of ordnance beneath the Amphib Base piers, including WWII-era barrage rockets. In May, as I swam past the dredge crane and barge in the middle of Glorietta Bay, I took pictures of a large shipping trailer on the barge that was full of twisted metal junk pulled up from the bay bottom around the piers. Presumably, this debris was all dumped since the previous dredging 18 years ago. This seems to demonstrate poor stewardship of public bay waters.

This time the Amphib Base public works department said they found only a single round of live ordnance and a few spent shells. As for the contaminants, these were either dumped there after 1998 or the contractor did a poor job of cleaning up the bottom in the earlier dredging. Here’s a partial list of the compounds that were too toxic to dump at sea, but were spread around the bay in the dredge plume: arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury nickel, selenium, and zinc. Also, 16 varieties of polychlorinated biphenyls, probable human carcinogens whose production was banned in the U.S. in 1979. Several coastal cities in California, including San Diego, have been trying unsuccessfully to sue Monsanto, a major polychlorinated biphenyls manufacturer, for polluting their coastal waters and harming wildlife. Polychlorinated biphenyls in San Diego Bay accumulate in the flesh of the spotted bay bass, one of the most popular game fish, and California has issued a warning not to eat more than one serving of it a week. It is unknown whether PCB’s accumulate in seahorses.

Other contaminants that were found at the Amphib Base and spread around include hydrocarbons, carcinogenic benzopyrenes, and about a dozen other harmful chemicals.

What’s the Red List?

One reason I wanted to reopen the permit for the dredging was to ask that the Navy be required to run real-time testing of the dredge plume and bottom sediments throughout Glorietta Bay, in order to track the spread of contamination or demonstrate that the public had nothing to fear from the project. And I was confused: the final go-ahead documents signed by the Navy said lookouts would keep an eye out for the endangered green sea turtles that reside in the bay, but how would they see them in the dark? And the documents say all dredging activities have to take place outside the endangered California Least Tern nesting season, which is April 1 through September 15. But the dredging went on for most of April and May. How could my beloved old Navy so blithely ignore the minimally restrictive rules it wrote for itself?

I tried to argue that the seahorses in San Diego Bay should be considered as if they were on the U.S. Endangered Species List because being on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List amounted to the same thing. But the man with the Corps of Engineers who was overseeing the project said, “What’s the Red List? If it isn’t listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, regulations don’t require that it be given special consideration.”

Losing clears the head. I don’t work well enough with others to try organizing an interest group to fight the Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers. All I could do is find out who had the best chance of researching and writing the petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the Great California Sea-Horse — discovered in San Diego — listed as threatened. The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Oakland, had written a petition to get Florida’s Dwarf Seahorse listed, which only resulted in some minor changes in state regulation of the commercial trade. The Center currently has a petition for the Chambered Nautilus pending for listing, and they’ve succeeded in getting numerous other species listed over the years. After some correspondence with biologist Abel Valdivia, who oversaw the Nautilus petition, he wrote to say at the end of the summer that his group was working up a petition for listing the Pacific Seahorse under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

I can still feel her strength in my hand. But I’m tired. There’s a nice low tide tomorrow morning when I can expect to float in glassy blue cove water over green pastures where the Great California Sea-Horse has roamed for centuries; with a little help from the Navy, the 21st will not be the sea pony’s last.

Whenever kids on the beach or paddleboarders in the water ask what I see below the surface, I have this little cherry bomb of joy to toss them: seahorses! Kids squeal and their mothers’ eyes glisten as they stare out toward the bridge, warmed and relieved to realize how rich their home waters remain. We could live without our native seahorses in the bay, but losing them would cost us dearly.

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