You’ve likely landed on the Big Island at Kailua-Kona with thoughts of sun and adventure, but did you know that a few miles south of the airport is the only seahorse farm in the US – the first of its kind in the world – helping to save the beautiful creatures from extinction?
Ocean Rider is owned by Carol Cozzi-Schmarr and her husband Craig. We’re here to learn about seahorses and our 45-minute tour begins with the dangers seahorses face: pollution, habitat destruction and overfishing (for medicinal purposes).
Seahorses are monogamous. When separated, they get depressed being away from their significant other and will soon stop eating, soon starving to death.
Their favourite food is live shrimp, so our first stop on the three-acre premises is to fish out some treats: Red Volcano shrimp from a saltwater pond near the entrance.
Shrimp are super high in fat, so seahorses grow strong, particularly important for the males who give birth to between 100 and 600 babies in about two minutes!
When a male seahorse sees a desirable female, he’ll pump up his belly to attract her so they’ll hopefully mate. If she’s impressed, she’ll drop her eggs into his pouch, a process that’s repeated a mere 30 days later following birth.
Our first seahorse encounter are babies in tanks, some only a few days old. Out in the ocean, only 1 in 1,000 is expected to live. At Ocean Rider, those odds increase to 50%. In captivity, seahorses typically live from six to eight weeks however here some live to be 15 years old. This place has the largest collection of seahorses in the world, some 20k at any given time!
The next set of tanks contain adult American seahorses. Regardless of sex, seahorses are very social and love to cling to one another by their tails.
Did you know that seahorses can see all colours of the rainbow? They also have three fins to navigate around the ocean with, yet are some of the worst swimmers. This makes them easy prey so they wrap around corals and other plants hoping for the best.
A company in Utah packages sea brine (aka Sea Monkeys) and sends them to Ocean Rider. The fast-growing brine lacks the fat and nutrients necessary for healthy growth, so the farm adds high-protein algae and this concoction gets dropped into the tanks during feeding time. The seahorses are quick to rise to the surface as we empty a cup of food into each tank.
Domestic sales are part of the business. You can order a male and female duo that will be shipped anywhere in the US by FedEx, provided you’ve first taken the free online course to get a better understanding of what’s involved in raising them at home.
Both sales and tours (and souvenir purchases) have helped to sustain Ocean Rider’s non-profit arm, Seahorse Hawaii Foundation.
So how did the couple get this far? Both came to Hawaii from shrimp hatchery jobs in both Ecuador and Costa Rica. They witnessed first-hand the devastation occurring in that region’s marine ecosystem, including the stripping of the seahorse population.
Believe it or not, seahorses are believed to cure sexual dysfunction via grinding them and adding them to tea. This was enough to get Carol and Craig actively involved in reversing the trend towards seahorse extinction.
The couple took their life savings of 250k, borrowed from family and friends and purchased about 100 seahorses from the Bahamas. Ocean Rider was launched in 1998 with the goal of producing seahorses for aquariums as well as having them thrive away from the ocean, where they’ve such a tiny chance of survival.
But now the fun part: we’re taken to a series of tanks where we’ve been properly instructed on how to handle the seahorses (by creating a ‘coral reef’ with our fingertips touching, then placing our hands elbow-deep into the tank).
One of the handlers at the farm gets a seahorse onto my finger and a moment of awe occurs as it wraps its tail around it and holds on for a good minute or so. In fact, it’s time for the next set of hands to enjoy the experience so my bucket-list moment is soon over.
Our tour ends in an adjacent room filled with tanks sporting seahorses from around the world, a menagerie of colours and sizes.
The best takeaway during this tour is learning about ocean conservation and avoiding the need to harvest wild seahorses.
Find Ocean Rider at 73-4388 Ilikai Place in Kailua-Kona.
Speaking of the ocean, here’s a video shot with my GoPro Hero 4 Black wearing a GoPro Chesty Mount:
Thanks to Roam Mobility, we were able to roam free of hefty carrier charges throughout our Big Island stay. Check out their talk/text/data plans online. You can even sign up for one day.
Special for Spring Break travellers: if you top up for Spring Break, you’ll be able to take advantage of 2x the 4G LTE data with any USA Talk/Text/Data or Data-only plans.