Scuba divers are threatening the survival of the infinitesimal Pygmy seahorses found on the coral reefs around Sabah’s east coast islands in Malaysia.

Sabah, a Malaysian state situated in the northern part of the island of Borneo, is home to two species of pygmy seahorse Hippocampus bargibanti and Hippocampus denise. Both species are fairly widespread in South East Asia and are found on coral slopes from southern Japan and Indonesia to northern Australia and New Caledonia.

Barely five years ago, the pygmy seahorses were discovered at popular Sabah divespots, such as Bodgaya, Mabul and Pulau Sipadan, and since then dive operators have brought large numbers of scuba divers to see the tiny creatures. In some of the most popular spots, over 100 divers can be seen exploring the reef simultaneously and this puts a lot of stress on the reef and its inhabitants.

Photographing divers have for instance been spotted breaking off sea fans – the natural habitat of the pygmy seahorses – and moved them just to get a better angle for their pictures.

In an effort to improve the conditions for the seahorses, marine biologist Yeong Yee Ling of the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu has held a two-day seminar about how to behave when scuba diving in seahorse habitat. The seminar was attended by 57 participants, including representatives from most of the 15 dive operators based in Semporna. Sabah Parks, the conservation-based statutory responsible for conserving the scenic, scientific and historic heritage of the state of Sabah, was also involved in the event.

Our hope is that the discussions from the seminar would eventually be synthesised into a code of conduct for divers. We are thankful the dive operators have been supportive of this effort,” said Yeong, who has been researching pygmy seahorses for the past three years.

The seminar was funded by the Shell Malaysia’s Sustainable and Development Grant.