A HORSE, MY KINGDOM FOR A HORSE. Every now and then, I stumble across a very special dive site, and it is always in the most unexpected place.
During a recent trip to Portugal, I visited a dive centre in Faro called Hidroespaco, owned by Jose Vieira and Fatima Noronha.
In among the usual tally of wrecks and reefs, Jose and Fatima had become aware of a vast kingdom of seahorses.
In fact, these creatures had been discovered by accident back in 2000 by Janet Curtis, a Canadian marine biologist. The Ria Formosa lagoon spreads out along some 36 miles of beach-lined coastline, and local fishermen used to catch seahorses in their seine nets (bottom dredgers), but couldnt pinpoint the exact location.
Janet had moored her boat in the shallow lagoon about five miles from the marina. As she sat there, munching away on her sandwiches, a seahorse appeared in the turbid waters below, and an exploratory dive revealed the full extent of her find.

WHAT BEGAN AS A FLUKE discovery evolved into a full-scale research programme called Project Seahorse.
A team of biologists from a Canadian university teamed up with local volunteers to monitor long-term population levels. By sub-sampling in designated areas, Janet estimated that there could be more than 2 million seahorses living in the lagoon.
Hidroespaco, currently the only dive centre licensed to dive with the seahorses, has been open for the past 14 years, and offers PADI and TDI training.
Most of its clientele is made up of local Portuguese divers, and dives are conducted from a 6.5m RIB with a 200hp Suzuki outboard. I kitted up in the car park, and walked to the RIB.
Jose and Fatima really put their heart and soul into the business and came across as extremely genuine people. They were happy to show me the protected site and let me take pictures.
First, they placed a buoyed line in the water to protect us from any passing boat traffic.
I was surprised by how shallow we were going to be diving - no more than 5 or 6m. I couldnt understand why the seahorses would choose to live in this particular area of seabed, which seemed to consist only of sand, sea urchins and a few pebbles.
I always thought that seahorses preferred sheltered areas such as seagrass beds, where they could anchor their prehensile tails.
This area was virtually barren, yet there are two species living in the lagoon, the short-snouted Hippocampus hippocampus and the long-snouted Hippocampus guttulatus. The larger long-snouted variety ranges in size from 5-35cm, and it took Jose less than a minute to find our first specimen.
The seahorse was scurrying along the open seabed, with no flora for protection or camouflage from predatory fish.
Normally these creatures blend in pretty well with their surroundings but this little fella, about 25cm long, stood out like a sore thumb.
Its majestic-looking spiky coronet protruded quite some distance from its head, and a thick mane ran down the entire length of its back.
Every seahorse has its own distinctive coronet pattern, allowing individuals to be distinguished from one another.
I managed to take three or four photographs, but I didnt want to push my luck. Seahorses are very sensitive creatures and can easily become stressed, especially with two big flashguns going off around them.
My camera lens port was blocking its path, so I backed away and let it pass. Seahorses can move surprisingly fast when they have to. They use small fins on their back for propulsion, and even smaller pectoral fins for steering.

OVER THE NEXT 45 MINUTES I saw 12 seahorses, 10 long-snouted and 2 short-snouted. Its common to see more than 30 on a single dive, Fatima told me.
The whole lagoon area is prone to massive tidal movement, which really does stir up the sand and sediment and at times can reduce visibility to barely 3m. I kept sight of Joses fins, making sure not to touch or kick the underlying seabed for fear of hitting a seahorse.
But fast-moving water did have a plus point - it provided a rich source of food. They mainly eat plankton, said Fatima. Seahorses suck the tiny, shrimp-like fish through their mouths, as if using a straw. They have no teeth or stomach, so the food passes through their digestive tract very quickly. They have to eat constantly to stay alive.
It seems that the lagoon provides perfect living and breeding conditions for seahorses. They are very particular about water temperature, salinity levels, nutrients and so on, and are also territorial. Males dont stray by more than a metre in either direction away from their own patch, whereas females will travel 100 times this distance.
Pairs usually mate for life. If seahorses lose a partner, their well-being declines dramatically, and they have been known to die. Normal lifespan is between two and seven years.
Breeding season is between April and October. Bizarrely, the male bears the young in a brood pouch on its abdomen called a marsupium. The female puts 100-200 eggs inside the pouch, and the male fertilizes them internally. Bigger bellies can carry more eggs, so the bigger the pouch, the more female interest!
Gestation period is two to four weeks. The baby seahorses, measuring about 1cm, initially stay in the males pouch to increase their chances of survival.
Over the past few years, the Project Seahorse team has found that the fragile kingdom is under serious attack.
Seahorse numbers inside the Ria Formosa Lagoon have dwindled by 87% since 2000, and the researchers are not sure why, though Fatima and Jose worry that they are being exported.
It could be down to illegal fishing for the Asian market, says Fatima.
As many as 10-20 million seahorses are killed every year, many being dried for sale as souvenirs, or used in traditional Chinese medicines.

UNFORTUNATELY I HAD TIME for only the one quick dive with the seahorses, but it was an eye-opening experience.
I felt sad that these fascinating creatures were under serious threat, not for being a food source but because they mightprovide a cure for impotence.
There are more than 35 species of seahorse found in both tropical and temperate waters. Many have now been added to the IUCN Red List for threatened and endangered species.

Project Seahorse: ww.seahorse.fisheries.ubc.ca