In December 2015, I acquired a group of new seahorses for my reef aquarium.
One of them arrived with an illness that should have claimed his life, but after 6 weeks in a hospital tank, little “Weeble” (click here for his full story, with photos) joined the reef.
Since then, he’s given me a couple of scares, survived a round of gas bubble disease (an affliction that often impacts seahorses with compromised immune systems) and proven himself a survivor many times over.
He’s also given me cause to think about what his little life has meant–and not only to me alone.
Most seahorses live and die in complete obscurity. They enter this world as one of hundreds, live-born from their father’s pouch in under a minute of startling seahorse labor:
For most, there are no cameras there to document the experience, and their lives–in the wild or in captivity–are largely undocumented and unnoticed. Most seahorses might encounter a handful of SCUBA divers or see the single family that owns their captive reef. Those who live in public aquariums reach more lives, but without much individual attention. Most of them never have names, and probably don’t do as much to raise awareness of ocean-related issues as their keepers wish they could.
By contrast with other seahorses, Weeble’s life has had a startling reach.
I used him in my keynote speech at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Colorado Gold Conference, as an example of perseverance–nobody told him he could not live, and he lived because he refused to surrender. Now, he’s thriving, because of his own determination and because of the other seahorses who came around him, comforting him and acting as his herd.
His lesson resonates with me, and I think with others who hear his story. Sometimes, the difference between life and death, success and failure, dreams fulfilled and dreams forgotten, depends almost entirely on our refusal to surrender. No one told Weeble that everyone else expected him to die…and he didn’t, mostly because he refused to give up.
A lesson we all can learn from.
And now, Weeble’s story has another happy chapter.
In early January, Weeble’s “pouch spot”–a circle of darker skin beneath his belly and anal opening–started developing into a real pouch. He’s had the spot since he came to me, which proved he was genetically male, but all his physical limitations prevented him from growing a proper pouch.
For over a year, I’ve thought that defect permanent. Weeble flirts with the female seahorses, but could not mate because he had no pouch. (This didn’t bother him, by the way–I’m not sure he fully realizes he’s missing out on anything.)
But now…the pouch is growing. You can see it in the picture above–look for the differently-textured skin beneath the bottom curve of his belly, on the front side of his body where his body meets his tail.
A seahorse’s pouch is softer than the exoskeleton that covers most of the rest of the fish’s body. It feels a bit like very soft, supple leather. During mating, the male flushes his pouch with water and then the female deposits her eggs inside. The male then seals off his pouch and fertilizes the eggs, which hatch and develop inside him–a true male pregnancy.
At the end of the gestation period (around a month for this species) the male goes into labor, which can last a few minutes to several hours, and then delivers the babies (it’s pretty spectacular to see, as you can guess from the video–that was one of my older males, Ghillie, back in 2012).
Most of my seahorses do not breed successfully, which is fine because I haven’t got the time to raise them anyway. However, it’s a lovely thing to see little Weeble finally growing his pouch and taking his place as a fully adult, fully developed member of the seahorse herd. He’s proud of his pouch (most male seahorses are) and he sticks it out when he swims as if to ensure that everyone can see.
Obvious jokes aside, I’m delighted for him. He’s come a long way from the broken-tailed baby lying in the hospital tank, and no matter how long he lives, his life has inspired more people than many seahorses will ever reach–starting, daily, with me.