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Turning Divers into Citizen Scientists

Lindsay Aylesworth is a PhD Candidate with Project Seahorse at the University of British Columbia, Canada. In Thailand, she collaborates with Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh, postdoctoral research associate at the John G. Shedd Aquarium, to investigate how seahorse catch and trade affect their wild populations, which helps to inform seahorse conservation and management. Recently, Lindsay co-authored a PADI Seahorse Distinctive Specialty with Dr. Loh and Julia Lawson from Project Seahorse and launched the specialty in Thailand.

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Photo Credit: Lindsay Aylesworth

Meet people. Go places. Do things. This is the mantra of PADI – one of the world’s largest scuba diving organizations.

Search for seahorses. Report sightings online. Contribute to global conservation efforts — this is the mantra of iSeahorse, a citizen science venture that has inspired a new PADI Seahorse Specialty course for divers.

iSeahorse is a web tool and iPhone app that allows anyone, anywhere in the world who sees a seahorse in the wild to help protect these charismatic animals by sharing their photos and data with scientists and other conservationists.

Finding seahorses isn’t always easy, however. Masters of camouflage, they are often difficult even for the most experienced divers to track. So, for the past year, I and two colleagues from Project Seahorse (the marine conservation group behind iSeahorse) and the Shedd Aquarium have been working to turn our citizen science seahorse program into a PADI scuba diving course.

Of the 48 seahorse species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, 26 are considered ‘Data Deficient’ – meaning there isn’t enough information for us to know whether these species are thriving or disappearing.

Thanks to their love of the sea and keen eye for marine life, divers often make great citizen scientists. With minimal training they can provide vital information on where seahorses are found and which species prefer which habitat types, leading to a better understanding of seahorse distribution and abundance around the world and improving seahorse conservation.

After a year of hard work, our Seahorse Specialty course was just approved by PADI. The PADI Seahorse Specialty course gives divers the skills they need to make important contributions to seahorse science and conservation — all while doing one of the things they love most.

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Photo Credit: Nampeung Patra

We decided to launch the specialty course in Thailand since there is a lack of published literature on seahorse distribution and abundance in Thai waters. This has made current research efforts challenging, as Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh and I have traveled around Thailand trying to understand where seahorses live and in which habitats. While conducting this research, we realized that divers in Thailand were an untapped wealth of information and could make an immediate difference for on-the-ground conservation efforts.

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Photo Credit: iSeahorse Thailand

To launch the specialty course we organized training sessions with dive instructors — a sort of “teach-the-teachers” event — so they can spread the word about seahorse conservation and how divers can make a difference. We did these training events in Phuket, Koh Tao and Pattaya, the three biggest dive destinations in Thailand. In total we trained over 30 instructors, including six course directors (people who train diver instructors) and reached over 1000 people through posts on our iSeahorse Thailand Facebook page.

Although the PADI Seahorse Specialty course is less than a month old, we have positive news to report. One of our new PADI Seahorse Instructors is heading to Vanuatu (a small Pacific island) to train local dive instructors how to teach our PADI Seahorse Specialty course. This is very exciting news because we have little information about seahorses in Vanuatu and this will be so helpful! Now the Seahorse Specialty course has a life of its own — meeting people, going places and contributing to seahorse conservation efforts!

To find out more about seahorse conservation and the PADI Seahorse Speciality Course, visit www.iSeahorse.org or email iseahorse@projectseahorse.org!