FOR MOST OF US, ”CRYPTIC” is a word we associate with crosswords, but for the biologist it has the specific meaning of an animal that is difficult to detect or observe.
Seahorses are revered by divers, but are shy and can be hard to spot. They adapt their colouring to their surroundings and avoid presenting their distinctive profiles to observers, often to our frustration.
Cryptic seahorses and the other species with which they coexist in the UK are the subject of what, if not for Blue Planet II, could be our book of the month. It’s a coffee-table number designed to make us all6marvel afresh at the wealth of marine life found in UK waters.
In The Company of Seahorses is set in those underwater eco-systems based around the underwater plant known as seagrass. This is where seahorses are likely, though not exclusively, to be found, and it’s in the seagrass beds of Dorset that the authors, a married couple, frequently dive or place remote video cameras.
About a third of the way through the book, the action switches from seahorses to other seagrass species, many of them small and cryptic too.
They peer out from inside shells, are caught in the instant before they retract into their tubes (worms), blend in with blades of grass (pipefish and gobies), conceal themselves in the sand (flatfish and rays) or rely on more proactive camouflage (cephalopods).
Those fish present are often in tiny form, seagrass beds proving to be efficient nurseries with their plentiful food supply for small mouths.
Despite their reticence, the seagrass-dwellers are brought out in all their often-colourful splendour through the very good photography that dominates this book.
Seahorse portraits pop up again every so often in the final two-thirds, lest we should forget about them. These are mainly the yellow spiny specimens as seen on the cover, however, and you can only really show them so many times at various angles or states of “pregnancy”.
Steve Trewhella, who photographed the first pregnant seahorse seen in the UK in the waters off Studland, has done a lot over the years to campaign for the protection of the creature’s favoured habitats. Threats include scallop-dredging and carelessly dragged anchors from boats. His photography transports us readily into this small, hidden world.
Julie Hatcher is a marine biologist who works in UK?conservation, and the couple live on Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck, well-placed to dip into the seagrass whenever they can.
The words of the book (I’m not sure if they are Hatcher’s or a combined effort) are clear, concise and very informative.
This is a beautifully produced book too, in terms of layout, typography and the always-excellent line drawings of Marc Dando.
It captures in print a great British underwater asset, and as top cameraman Doug Allan says tellingly in his foreword: “It would be criminal
if this book became an epitaph to seagrass meadows and seahorses rather than an inspiration that contributes to their future protection.”
WILD NATURE PRESS
HARDBACK, 240PP, 25 X 24CM, £19.99