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Feature Story

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Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

Text and photography by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari


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day octopus picture
ornate ghost pipefish, Solenostomus paradoxus, Family Solenostomidae, showing cryptic livery and behavior, two males and a large female in breeding and courtship temporary aggregation, Indo Pacific Ocean Image #: 125957

Little Masters of Camouflage

Divers are an obsessive breed: in fact, the diving community is periodically swept by fads, which take everybody by storm and which usually cause huge transcontinental migrations. Nowadays everybody is nuts about pygmy seahorses, and underwater photographers are quite willing to fly across the globe at the first feeble hint of what might possibly be a new species of this queer-looking and very small fish – but until a few years ago, it was its close relatives the Ornate Ghost pipefish Solenostomus paradoxus and the Robust Ghost pipefish Solenostomus cyanopterus which attracted divers from all over the world to South-East Asian waters like a magnet.

Yes, these two fascinating little species belonging to the Family Solenostomidae (“oblique-mouthed”) are closely related to all Seahorses (belonging instead to the Family Singnathidae), with whom they share extraordinary cryptic (camouflage) qualities. In contrast to Seahorses, Ghost pipefishes however sport very large and well developed fins and leave the brooding of the eggs to the female of the species, which is usually the larger of the two. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspect of these beautiful little creatures of the sea is the capability of the females to create a kangaroo-like “pouch”- in which they keep the egg mass till hatching - by holding together their ventral fins just like two cupped human hands. Larvae are pelagic, but juveniles and breeding adults settle to a benthic life.

The Truth is Out There

The two most commonly observed (well, “commonly” might actually be a misleading term in this case!) species in Indo-Pacific waters are the Ornate Ghost pipefish S. paradoxus and the Robust Ghost pipefish S. cyanopterus, but several others have been recently named, and possibly more will be in the future: the first is spectacularly patterned in black, red and yellow with a distinctly “ragged” appearance, while the second is more somber and streamlined, usually brownish, reddish or green. Colourful or not, both species are exceptionally well adapted to their surroundings and can be exceedingly difficult to spot. More mobile than Seahorses, adult Ghost pipefishes are rarely more than 12 centimeters long and can usually be observed – with some luck and even better eyesight – hovering close to the substrate or some sort of submerged object offering a measure of protection from open-water predators: they usually seem to prefer silty, open substrates in coastal calm and shallow waters, often being found on coarse sand and broken coral rubble, but in fact it is not uncommon at all finding them in rich coral reef areas too. Ornate Ghost pipefishes can often be observed alone, in pairs or in small groups up to ten individuals in close proximity of crinoids and gorgonians - in which they literally disappear - while Robust Ghost pipefishes are more easily found in pairs or even alone on sandy areas with plenty of vegetation. In fact, this fascinating species is able to perfectly mimic a rotting fragment of Posidonia, and will unashamedly “roll” in the current in front of your unbelieving eyes, pretending to be just a dead leaf. Look for the white and pink spots on its body, faithfully mimicking calcareous algae! Unexperienced divers are also often taken aback by the rather unorthodox position in which Ornate Ghost pipefishes are found most of the time: hovering almost vertically, head-down, scanning attentively the bottom for small crustacean prey, which is usually ingested via the sharp vacuum-suction of the pipette-like mouth. In any case, the fascinating behaviour and appearance of both species offers endless observation and wonderful photographic opportunities to those divers with a “sense of wonder”.

The ghosts’ haunting places

Both species are widespread in the tropical Indo-Pacific, but some places simply seem to offer better opportunities for them than others. Common haunts for Ghost pipefishes are the shallow banks of Sabah (Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park in Kota Kinabalu, Pulau Lankayan in the Sulu Sea, Pulau Mabul and Kapalai in the Sulawesi Sea) and the Philippines (Puerto Galera among others) for the paler, less colorful forms, while diving in Sulawesi (especially in the Lembeh Strait and Manado) or Bali offers the opportunity to admire much darker individuals with a more contrasting color pattern (due no doubt to the black volcanic sand environment). Just remember that for Ghost pipefishes “shallow, coastal and calm” is better that “deep and oceanic”. Some strange species (or local variations) like the so-called “Irish Setter” – so named, quite aptly, for its shaggy mane of reddish “hair” - can be rarely observed in the Arafura Sea and along the coast of Papua New Guinea. One word of caution: little is known about the life cycle of Ghost pipefishes, but it is suspected that most are short-lived, congregating seasonally in certain areas for breeding – so it’s better to enquire first with the local dive masters about the right time of the year to see them.


Since your subjects are so small, a macro lens is a must: a 105mm will be perfect. Side views are a must to take full advantage of both species’ queer shape, so try to get as low as possible since these fish tend to stick close to the bottom. Ornate Ghost pipefishes often display for unknown reasons, raising and fully spreading their unbelievably colorful fan-like dorsal, ventral and caudal fins: take your time, hold your breath and click at exactly the right moment. Best shots are taken on a black or very dark background, which really enlivens the animal’s colors. Very lucky and observant divers can also take advantage of brooding females, getting really near to take close-ups of the egg clutch container in the ventral pouch created by the conjoined pelvic fins: in lucky shots one can actually see the tiny eyes of the fry looking back from the eggs. Transparent, delicate juveniles make great subjects too – if you can find them! Robust Ghost pipefishes give their best instead when photographed in their habitat, possibly in pairs, so viewers can appreciate their fantastic camouflage. Both species are quite confident in their “invisibility” and let you approach quite closely – but, as usual, please remember always not to disturb, touch or manipulate them in any way.

Reading matter

Best deal on Seahorses and Pipefishes in general is Rudie Kuiter’s absolutely unbelievable Seahorses, Pipefishes and their relatives (TMC Publishing, 2000), which has everything one could humanely ask (and possibly more) about these fascinating creatures. For a less specific, exhaustive and probably more readable field guide, Andrea and Antonella Ferrari’s A Diver’s Guide to Underwater Malaysia Macrolife (Nautilus Publishing, 2003) is the book to get.