COURTESY OF OCEAN RIDER
Eighteen species of sea horses are being raised at Ocean Rider in Kona, where Craig and Carol Cozzi-Schmarr are attempting to save the creatures from extinction.
Farm offers encounter of a lifetime
With his belly swollen to more than twice its usual size, Uncle Ken was obviously near the end of his pregnancy. As if on cue, knowing 30 visitors were watching, he assumed a jackknife position and gave birth to 550 babies. The process took less than a minute.
Meet at: Ocean Rider, NELHA, 73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Suite 118, Kona
Tours: Noon, 1 and 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; private tours available
Cost: $20 for adults; $16 for ages 7 through 13; $10 for ages 4 through 6; free for 3 and younger
Call: (808) 329-6840; reservations recommended
Web site: www.seahorse.com
Notes: Ocean Rider's nonprofit arm, the Sea Horse Hawaii Foundation, supports marine conservation and the propagation of additional sea horse species and Hawaiian reef fish. Tax-deductible contributions are welcome at the address above. Ocean Rider will unveil a new gift shop and aquarium room by June. Plans also call for a cafe to open in the fall.
Carol Cozzi-Schmarr's amazing story didn't end there.
"Seventy-five other adult sea horses were in the same holding tank with him and his babies," she recalled. "They all raced up, thinking the babies were food. When they got about an inch away, however, each of them stopped, turned and swam back to the bottom of the tank. That clearly provided the answer to the question everyone asks: Do marine animals eat their young? Most fish do, but not the sea horse!"
The enchanting creature also is the only member of the animal kingdom whose males, not females, go through a monthlong gestation period and, depending on the species, deliver three to 2,000 babies at a time.
Those are just a few of the fascinating facts you'll learn during a visit to Ocean Rider, the only sea horse farm in America and the first of its kind in the world. Cozzi-Schmarr and husband Craig launched the business in 1998 at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, the state-owned ocean science and technology park six miles north of Kailua-Kona town.
Last summer, they began one-hour tours of their 3-acre facility, where they raise 18 of the 34 known species of sea horses. The response has been so great that they are now drawing 250 visitors a week.
"Craig and I really wanted to do something that would inspire ocean awareness and conservation," Cozzi-Schmarr said. "We came to Hawaii from shrimp hatchery jobs in Ecuador and Costa Rica. During the 12 years we spent in South America, we saw tremendous devastation to both the Amazon River and the coastal marine ecosystem."
In Ecuador the couple traveled to many beaches to buy large shrimp for breeding. When fishermen would drag nets from their small "pongas" (wooden boats) to snare pregnant shrimp brood stock, they also would pull up sea horses, which they sold to customers for medicinal purposes.
"The sea horse is full of testosterone and calcium, so that makes it a natural Viagra," Cozzi-Schmarr said. "About 3 billion people throughout the world believe that the sea horse cures sexual dysfunction, so they grind it and put it in their tea every day. I personally witnessed the stripping of sea horse populations in South America, and it was very disturbing."
COURTESY OF OCEAN RIDER
Pregnant male sea horses, like the one above, deliver between three and 2,000 babies at a time, depending on species.
AQUARIUM ENTHUSIASTS also have contributed to the dwindling number of sea horses in the wild.
The sea horses "would die within a few months because they weren't domesticated," she said. "They weren't accustomed to being in an enclosed environment, and they didn't eat frozen food. Also, sea horse pairs bond for life, so when you take an animal from the wild, you're probably going to separate it from its mate. It'll be lonely, it'll be stressed and it'll die."
Wanting to reverse the trend, she and Craig founded Ocean Rider to save the sea horse from extinction by offering an eco-friendly alternative to specimens caught in the wild. With their life savings of $250,000, contributions from a few family members and a small loan from the Small Business Administration, they purchased their initial gene pool of 100 Hippocampus erectus sea horses from the Bahamas, rented 7,000 square feet of space at NELHA, and set up an office and equipment.
"We believed there was a market for a domesticated sea horse," Cozzi-Schmarr said. "We believed we could produce an animal that would be so pretty people would buy it. We believed we could train it to be so comfortable in an aquarium environment that it would thrive. And that's exactly what happened."
Within four years, Ocean Rider grew to the point where a major expansion was necessary. In 2002 it moved half a mile to its present location, where more than 200 large tanks are used to breed and hold sea horses and to cultivate their live food, including red shrimp, brine shrimp, microalgae, copepods and ampipods.
When they're 5 months old, the sea horses begin eating frozen mysis shrimp, which is what they're fed in home aquariums. Ocean Rider sells its sea horses when they're 10 to 12 months old. Prices run from $65 to $300 each, depending on the species, size and vividness of the animals' colors, which range from ivory, yellow, orange and maroon to gray, green, purple and black.
Ocean Rider boasts the largest collection of sea horses in the world, some 20,000 at any given time.
On the tour, you'll see every stage of the animal's development, from minuscule newborn infants to adults, which, depending on the species, range from 1/4 of an inch to more than a foot in size.
You'll also learn how sea horses eat (by sucking food through their snouts), how they mate and how they are bagged and boxed for transport to mainland customers via FedEx. Ocean Rider doesn't sell its sea horses locally.
"People might release them in the ocean here," Cozzi-Schmarr explained. "The sea horses we breed are not from Hawaii, and we don't want any foreign species to be introduced in our precious coral reefs."
THE HIGHLIGHT of the tour is the holding area, where your guide will wrap Mr. Aloha, Barney Two, Auntie Gertrude or another friendly sea horse around your finger.
"That's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and people's faces light up when they find out they can do it at Ocean Rider," Cozzi-Schmarr said.
Partly thanks to its efforts, the number of sea horses caught in the wild for aquariums has dropped from about 1 million nine years ago to about 25,000 annually. But because no regulations have been set, the amount of sea horses being taken for medicine still is astronomical. Cozzi-Schmarr estimates it was 20 million in 1998, with a 10 percent increase every year since then.
This practice is wiping out sea horse populations worldwide, prompting the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (www.cites.org) to note that the animal might become extinct if protective measures aren't enforced.
"What we do at Ocean Rider is educate our guests about the sea horse's plight and do the best we can to stop the harvesting of wild sea horses for the aquarium market," Cozzi-Schmarr said. "We started the tours because we realized it was a way our message of ocean conservation could reach a larger audience. It's thrilling for us to see people leave here inspired to help that cause."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.