Where do the Seahorses roam?

Photo by Georgette Douwma / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The seahorse is a very fascinating marine fish, usually ranging in size from half an inch to 8 inches. A species from New Zealand waters can grow to as long as 14 inches while the pygmy seahorse hiding among seafans can only be observed with the aid of a magnifying lens.

It swims in a vertical position, has a body composed of an external skeleton arranged in rings and wrapped by a skin instead of scales.  The skin can change colors or even texture giving it the exceptional ability to blend with its surroundings. Its head resembles that of a horse hence its name. The eyes can move independently of the other, allowing the seahorse to spot its tiny prey and at the same time watch out for would be predators. Instead of a tail or caudal fin like other fishes it has a prehensile tail that it can use to hang on to branching corals, seagrass, seaweed and other small things it can curl on.  It is a slow swimmer but unlike most fishes, the seahorse can easily maneuver up, down, forward, backwards or swim in a spiral motion.

Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti) Photo by Steve Childs

Distinct from other fishes, it has a curved neck and a long snout that sucks very tiny shrimps and planktons. The seahorse are monogamous which is uncommon among fishes and they have been observed to display courtship dances until they mate but what makes it so extraordinary is that, the males get pregnant and give birth to 100 – 1,000 fully developed seahorse fry!

In 30 years of scuba diving throughout the Philippine archipelago, I have seen a seahorse only once. Thus when some of the fishermen we were training to become Reef Ranger snorkeling guides confidently claimed that they have seahorses in the seagrass beds, we decided to have one of our in-water training sessions in their mangrove reserve.

Photo by Louie Mencias
Photo by Louie Mencias

The training activity called for role playing wherein the participants had to take turns in guiding small groups snorkeling and showing them interesting marine life. The prospect of seeing seahorses excited the training staff while the local fisherfolks undergoing the training were eager to show us the seahorses.

After a brief boat ride from the town we reached an islet. It was a small mangrove forest with a few sandy mounds and a small lagoon surrounded by placid, shallow water with extensive seagrasss cover. The class was divided into four groups that went snorkeling in different sites around the islet with the intention and challenge of finding seahorses. As the various teams swam away from their boats, all the participants and training staff focused their attention on the leaves of the seagrass and submerged roots of the mangroves. Soon one of the teams excitedly called out to announce the sighting of a seahorse. And then the other team also spotted several seahorses in their location. The place really had seahorse even in as shallow as 3 ft. and everyone was able to see them. We were ecstatic because they can practically guarantee seeing seahorses in their mangrove reserve when you go snorkeling!

Photo by Louie F. Mencias

Seahorses are vulnerable to extinction due to overharvesting, habitat destruction and marine pollution. They are primarily collected for its use in traditional Chinese medicine where it is claimed to treat a wide variety of ailments from fever, respiratory disorder, lethargy, induction of labor, impotency, etc. It is estimated that as much as 150 million dried seahorses a year are being consumed this way. Uncontrolled development along the coastal areas lead to the destruction of seagrass and mangroves ecosystems. Earth moving activities due to real estate development and mining result to sedimentation which smother seagrass beds. Sad to say some beach resort development included removal of seagrass in the shallow areas so that their beach will be more suited for wading and swimming. The use of pesticides in the farmlands and herbicides from golf courses lead to much destruction of ecosystems and the death of seahorses and many other marine organisms. Mining operations upland result to sediment pollution from mine tailings that are carried down the river and continuously dumped into the estuaries and coastal areas. On the other hand black sand mining that had been happening in many places of the country, has caused widespread coastal erosion and siltation. Electric generation plants and industries that make use of seawater for cooling cause thermal pollution that can affect growth and settlement of marine plants and bottom dwelling animals.

The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists the seahorse (Hippocampus spp.) in Appendix II and thus its capture or collection is prohibited by the Philippine Fisheries code (RA 8550) with a penalty of 12-20 years imprisonment and / or a fine of Php120,000.00 for violators. However, in many coastal areas throughout our archipelago, the seahorse is harvested by fishermen as long as there are fish traders that are willing to buy dried seahorses.

In Zambales, dried seahorses are bought by some traders for only P10.00 per piece. Some of the local fishermen who used to harvest them claim that seahorses used to be common but that they were getting fewer and fewer.

When snorkeling guides were trained and community-based tourism was established, the host community realized that the seahorse was one of their town’s unique wildlife attractions. Although the natural population had dwindled, the seahorses are still there.

In time, they started getting visitors who went snorkeling and saw the seahorses. These same visitors told their friends about their seahorse encounters and through social media, word got around. The snorkeling guides and their community realized that as long as the seahorse are in their mangrove reserve, they have an unusual wildlife attraction that they can show to their guests. They also learned that through ecotourism, they can derive economic benefit without having to take the seahorse from its habitat. The local snorkeling guides requested the other fisherfolks in the area to stop capturing the seahorse whose value when alive and roaming in the wild, is so much more than when it is dead and dried.  Eventually the local community understood that they also had to take care of the seagrass and the mangroves too because if those ecosystems are destroyed, the seahorse will also disappear.

Photo by Louie F. Mencias

The mangrove islet, the seagrass meadows along with the seahorse and the corals reefs with its giant clams in the fish sanctuary are the outstanding tourism resources that sets the town of Masinloc apart from the other beach destinations in the region. Ecotourism provided an incentive for aquatic wildlife protection and conservation of habitats. As long as the ecosystems thrive so will the marine organisms in it, and as long as the community continue to be stewards of their coastal resources that give them food and livelihood, we will always have seagrass meadows for the seahorse to roam.  

My grandson, Gabriel is only 2 weeks old and I have hope that many years from now when he has grown and old enough to explore our islands, he will still find a place where he can snorkel with the seahorses.

Ecotourism and biodiversity conservation

PictureOur country’s biodiversity is a unique natural capital for tourism. Many of our ecotourism sites have rare or uncommon plants and animals which form part of the attractions that draw visitors to our islands. Some of these are globally threatened while other species are so rare and can be found only within the Philippine archipelago.

While are country’s coastline is known for our warm,  clear water and sandy beaches, our coral reefs and the diverse marine life within had attracted scuba divers from other parts of the world. With more than 480 species of hard corals found in our waters, it is not surprising that our coral reefs have provided much fascination for both domestic and foreign recreational divers.


When the effects of destructive fishing methods such as blast fishing, muro-ami and the use of cyanide to capture tropical fish for the aquarium trade, are witnessed by scuba divers who visited these sites, they were usually the first to call the attention of the authorities.  Upland, bird watchers have also raised concern with the destruction of forest habitats due to logging and kaingin or slash and burn farming.

The coral reefs of Mabini, Tingloy and Bauan, Batangas are their main attractions and not their rocky beaches. While marine protected areas (MPAs) were primarily established to sustain fisheries, these sites enjoyed luxuriant coral growth, abundance of fish and diverse marine life that also attracted divers and snorkelers. The same is true for Apo Is. in Negros Oriental, Apo Reef in Sablayan, Mindoro Occ. and our Tubbataha Reefs National Marine Park.

Many of our island destinations are also known for the endemic wildlife. Take the Philippine tarsier as an example which is undeniably a tourism icon for Bohol.  No tour of the island will be complete without seeing a live tarsier albeit in captivity. It is therefore very understandable that Boholanons would not want any harm to fall on the world’s smallest primate.

The world’s largest fish, the gentle whale shark had brought prominence to Donsol, Sorsogon, Oslob in Cebu and Sogod Bay, in Southern Leyte. Were it not for the butanding, these and other places would probably not have enjoyed the influx of visitors and the local communities may not have derived socio-economic benefits from tourism.


In the island of San Salvador, Masinloc, Zambales is one of the earliest marine sanctuaries in Luzon.  The reef has luxuriant coral growth and is home to the threatened giant clams, Tridacna gigas. The shallow sea grass bed of Yaha Islet is home to several species of seahorses. In the past, local fishermen used to catch the seahorse, dried them and sold them to a Chinese trader (supposedly for its medicinal value) for a mere P10.00 per seahorse. When some of the fishermen and family members were trained to be Reef Ranger snorkeling guides and started earning from tourism, they realized that the seahorse is far more valuable alive and tourists are able to see them  in the natural environment.  They did not have to get the seahorse, all they had to do was look for them and point it out to tourists.  As long as they had seahorses, tourists will come to snorkel and observe them in the wild. Eventually, these snorkeling guides stopped the catching of the seahorse because they understood that the seahorse was one of their unique wildlife attractions and thus they cannot allow the depletion of their seahorse population.  In time the fishermen also recognized the need to protect the seagrass ecosystem because it is the habitat of the seahorse which will eventually disappear if the seagrass is lost.

Further to the north, in the town of Sta. Cruz, Zambales is Hermana Menor island. The marine sanctuary is extensive, has excellent live coral cover, abundance of fish and endangered giant clams that make snorkeling an exceptionally fun and fascinating experience. Thus the local snorkeling guides actively take part in monitoring and protecting their MPA because they understand its importance extends beyond fisheries to tourism.



Helmet shell (Casis cornuta)

In Mati City, Davao Oriental is a sandy beach that serves as nesting site for marine turtles. Occasionally, sea cow or dugong and whale sharks are seen in the clear blue waters of Dahican beach. The local surfers and snorkeling guides known as Amihan sa Dahican, take an active part in protecting their environment. Led by George “Jun” Plaza, they have established a turtle hatchery. Aside from keeping the beach free from non-biodegradable debris, they also take the time and effort to orient visitors on the turtle life cycle and the need to care for the marine environment.  They also see to it that the dugong and whale sharks that visit the shallow waters of Dahican beach are not caught nor harmed.

The endangered helmet shell (Casis cornuta) is the unique wildlife attraction in Buntod Reef, Masbate City. The reef is also an MPA, has a low sandbar and several stands of mangrove.  This is where one can still observe helmet shells (also commonly called elephant’s ear) crawling in the shallow portions of the fish sanctuary. The Samahang Mangingisda ng Puro-Sinalikway (SAMAPUSI) take care of their MPA and many of their members are also snorkeling guides. They also enjoy strong support in protecting their fish sanctuary from the City of Masbate.

Many of the island residents of Palaui Is. Protected Landscape and Seascape, in Sta. Ana, Cagayan enjoy the benefits of community-based tourism. Most are hiking, snorkeling or birding guides, while others are involved in catering, operating the nature village campsite, weaving souvenir items. Some are massage therapists in the island spa.  They are also aware that their natural attractions, the primary and secondary forests, the mangroves, rocky cliffs and beaches are habitats for birds. During the Amihan months the water is usually cold for snorkeling but the island being in the migratory flyway, turns into a birding destination, with its abundance of resident and migratory birds as well as few globally threatened species.



Samar Island Natural Park with its extensive primary forest thriving on the third largest island of the Philippines, is endowed with a rich diversity of flora and fauna. In a bird inventory conducted in 2002 to 2003 in Paranas, one of the towns within the park, out of 147 recorded species, 36 species were endemic, 26 species were threatened and 11 were new records for Samar island.  The avian inventory was conducted in only a very small portion of the SINP and the results are very encouraging.  It implies that Samar is a an exciting place for birding because of the presence of birds that can be found only in our archipelago as well as species that may be island endemic or even birds that had not yet been observed in Samar and Leyte. One such attraction is the endemic Samar tarictic hornbill. Some 24 farmers from the towns of Calbiga, Paranas, San Jose de Bauan and Taft were trained through the joint efforts of DOT and DENR region 8. The Buhay Ibon birding guides of SINP realize the livelihood opportunities from wildlife tourism and the need to protect the birds and their forest.



Throughout the Philippine archipelago are many other natural areas that are rich in biodiversity. Most of these will have communities that depend on their natural resources for livelihood, usually by farming, fishing or harvesting forest products.  In areas where nature and wildlife are the primary attractions, ecotourism creates a non-extractive and non-destructive form of livelihood for the host community.  They learn that the ecosystems and wildlife they have are their natural capital that should be cared for if they are to continually have tourism. When local residents derive socio-economic benefits from tourism, habitats are preserved, wildlife is protected and biodiversity continues to flourish.

Learn more about the importance of biodiversity conservation to tourism at the Philippine Ecotourism 101 training seminar in Baguio City on March 3 & 4, 2016. Find out more here.

Livelihood from the Living Sea

PictureIn 1974, a marine reserve was established in one of the tiny islands of our country. One side of the island was declared as the core sanctuary or a “no take zone” and the remaining areas became the buffer zone where sustenance fishing was allowed. In ten years there were significant improvement of the non-fished area.  Live coral cover had spread dramatically, fish abundance had more than doubled and more importantly,  fish catch in the fishing zone increased from 14 tons / km2 to 36 tons / km2 (Russ and Alcala 1996).  This clearly shows that by protecting a portion of the island’s reef from fishing or any form of harvesting, the fish population within that zone will increase and eventually spillover to the adjoining reefs outside the sanctuary.

With the guidance and support of Siliman University in Dumaguete City, Sumilon Island became a model for fisheries management that stresses the importance of fish sanctuaries as a means to increase fish stocks. In 1984, the Sumilon marine sanctuary was violated and in the subsequent years the fish yield declined.

Since then the marine reserves, sanctuaries and parks have increased to more than 1,000 marine protected areas or MPAs throughout the Philippine archipelago. Majority of these MPAs had been established through a municipal or city ordinance. A marine reserve is an area where non-destructive fishing or non-commercial harvesting is allowed but regulated.  Marine parks are areas wherein educational, recreational or conservation oriented tourism activities are allowed. The marine sanctuaries are strict protection zones where no extraction may take place and where access may also be prohibited, in its extreme form it is a “no take, no touch” area.  A sanctuary is usually located within the boundaries of a marine reserve or a park.

Out of the hundreds of MPAs in the country only a handful are effectively managed and usually these are the sites where the LGU and the local communities have consistently worked together to monitor, manage and protect their coastal resources.  Many of these successful MPAs have also become attractions for tourists, specially for snorkelers and scuba divers who visit these places because of its well preserved condition, live coral cover, high biodiversity and abundance of fish. Thus aside from the ecological importance to fisheries and food security, successful MPAs have also become valuable tourism resources.

Conservation and Livelihood

A common concern in all protected areas of our country whether it is in the forested mountains or in the coastal areas is the lack of livelihood opportunities for the local communities that depend on the natural resources that is being protected. Thus provision of alternative sources of income is always mentioned as part of the management strategy in nature parks and other protected sites.

Alternative livelihood that is not dependent on resource extraction has always been viewed as a means to reduce pressure on the natural resources in these critical areas.  The most viable option is Community based nature tourism or what many refer to as eco-tourism. However this strategy has rarely been successfully implemented mainly due to the lack of capability within the communities and the concerned LGUs.

Buhay Dagat program

In 2008, the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD) of the Dept. of Tourism launched the Buhay Dagat Program that intended to open economic opportunities for coastal communities. The program simply means “hanap buhay mula sa buhay na dagat” (livelihood from a living sea) and it introduced community-based tourism in an MPA.

PictureThe primary objective of Buhay Dagat was to introduce an additional source of income for People’s Organization or fisherfolk communities that protect and manage their Marine Protected Areas. Most of the people engaged in the gallant effort of protection of municipal MPAs do so in a volunteer basis and more often than not it entails a lot of sacrifices to the point that livelihood is compromised. A substantial amount of time is devoted to the monitoring and protection of the site by the local community as stewards of their coastal resources.

Buhay Dagat trained interested residents to become snorkeling guides so that they can offer skin diving activities to of the marine sanctuary thereby empowering them to derive supplemental income from coastal tourism. Initially, ten (10) MPAs were selected throughout the Philippine archipelago as pilot sites for this program that aims to help alleviate poverty in the communities and at the same time, encourage them to further strengthen and continue protection of their respective marine sanctuaries.

Site selection

Potential sites for the program were identified using a criteria the following: an established MPA with effective management being implemented; willingness of the community that protects and monitors the MPA to engage in coastal tourism; receptiveness and support of the local government unit (LGU); area is safe and secured from political unrest/insurgency and criminality; great potentials for coastal tourism; current bio-physical status (well preserved ecosystem, high biodiversity); readiness for tourism; suitable for snorkeling at least six months in a year; no threats from logging, mining, pollution and uncontrolled development; and no hazards (rip currents, boat traffic, surf, abundance of sea wasp, etc).

The MPA management rating developed by the MPA Support Network (MSN) is also referred to, as a basis of initial selection. A site validation is then conducted prior to the final selection and implementation.

Capability Building

PictureA six-day, on-site training was offered by the PCSSD from 2008 – 2011 to deserving fisher-folks, communities or people’s organizations. Successful participants were accredited as Reef Ranger snorkeling guides. This was in recognition of their qualification as trained snorkeling guides and dedicated protectors of the MPA.  Aside from practical skills like skin diving, aquatic guideship, water safety and rescue techniques, the training covered topics on the environmental principles, conservation of marine resources and community-based sustainable tourism. The program was developed by Blue Water Consultancy and it’s team of experts conducted the Reef Ranger snorkeling guide training.

Buhay Dagat’s first site in November 2008 was the Cabacungan Fish Sanctuary in Cabilao Island located in Loon, Bohol. The island is a known dive site and several boats travel daily all the way from Mactan, Cebu to bring divers. Hundred Islands National Park in Alaminos, Pangasinan was the second site where the Reef Ranger training was conducted in December 2008.

While the Buhay Dagat program was started during the term of Sec. Ace Durano, the program was continued when Sec. Alberto Lim was at the helm of the department. From March 2011 to 2012 the program was successfully implemented in 8 other sites: Sipalay City and Sagay City, Negros Occ., Palaui Is. Protected Landscape and Seascape, Sta. Ana, Cagayan, Lubang and Looc, Mindoro Occ., Limasawa Is., Southern Leyte, Aloguinsan, Cebu, and Daram, Samar. It was also conducted in Lian, Batangas on the request of the municpality and the Center for Social Concern and Action (COSCA), La Salle in Oct. 2012

In the last quarter of 2012, the program was discontinued by the current executive director of PCSSD. However the initiative was replicated by the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (now renamed Biodiversity Management Bureau) for the ecotourism enterprise development of the Integrated Coastal Resource Management Project of DENR. In 2012 -2013 it was successfully implemented in 8 other sites in the provinces of Cagayan, Zambales, Masbate, Cebu and Davao Oriental. From 2014 – 2015, Buhay Dagat was also conducted in Southern Leyte, Northern Samar and Samar in with DOT Region VIII.


The simple philosophy of the Buhay Dagat program is that if the people care for and protect the sea and their MPAs then it will continue to provide them food and livelihood. With the Buhay Dagat initiative, protection of marine resources and biodiversity conservation are strengthened through coastal tourism while providing economic benefits for local communities.

The first edition of this article was published in Haring Ibon Jan-March 2009 Issue no. 37

Photos are by Louie Mencias