Seahorse dreams: San Diego Bay's most elusive creature

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.

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