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THE ASTORIAN • SATuRdAy, July 13, 2019
Retired teacher built secret world for seahorses
Beneath the sea in Long Beach
By DEBORAH NETBURN
los Angeles Times
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Rog Hanson
emerges from the coastal waters, pulls a div-
ing regulator out of his mouth and pushes a
scuba mask down around his neck.
“Did you see her?” he says. “Did you see
On this quiet Wednesday morning, a pad-
dleboarder glides silently through the surf off
Long Beach. Two stick-legged whimbrels
plunge their long curved beaks into the sand,
hunting for crabs.
But Hanson, 68, is enchanted by what lies
hidden beneath the water. Today he took a
visitor on a tour of the secret world he built
from palm fronds and pine branches at the
bottom of the bay: his very own seahorse city.
The visitor confirms that she did see
“Bathsheba,” an 11-inch-long orange Pacific
seahorse, and a grin spreads across Hanson’s
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he says. “She’s our
If you get Hanson talking about his
seahorses, he’ll tell you exactly how many
times he’s seen them (997), who is dat-
ing whom, and describe their personalities
with intimate familiarity. Bathsheba is stoic,
“Daphne” a runner. “Deep Blue” is chill.
He will also tell you that getting to know
these strange, almost mythical beings has
profoundly affected his life.
“I swear, it has made me a better human
being,” he says. “On land I’m very C-minus,
but underwater, I’m Mensa.”
Hanson is a retired schoolteacher, not a
scientist, but experts say he probably has
spent more time with Pacific seahorses, also
known as Hippocampus ingens, than anyone
“To my knowledge, he is the only person
tracking ingens directly,” says Amanda Vin-
cent, a professor at the University of British
Columbia and director of the marine conser-
vation group Project Seahorse. “Many peo-
ple love seahorses, but Roger’s absorption
with them is definitely distinctive. There’s a
degree of warm obsession there, perhaps.”
Photos by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times
Rog Hanson, 68, a retired schoolteacher, fell in love with scuba diving and the ocean after an encounter with a whale. He discovered a colony of
seahorses by chance in 2016 and has been following them ever since.
A two-hour trek
Over the last three years, Hanson has
made the two-hour trek from his home in
Moreno Valley to the industrial shoreline of
Long Beach to visit his “kids” about every
five days. To avoid traffic, he often leaves
at 2 a.m. and then sleeps in his car when he
He keeps three tanks of air and his scuba
gear in the trunk of his 2009 Kia Rio. A tooth-
brush and a pair of pink leopard print reading
glasses rest on the dash.
Hanson makes careful notes after all his
dives in a colorful handmade log book he
stores in a three-ring binder. On this Wednes-
day he dutifully records the water tempera-
ture (62 degrees), the length of the dive (58
minutes), the greatest depth (15 feet) and vis-
ibility (3 feet), as well as the precise loca-
tion of each seahorse. His notes also include
‘Deep Blue’ is one of the seahorses that Rog Hanson is studying.
phase of the moon, the tidal currents and the
other animals generally found in southern
strength of the UV rays.
“Scientists will tell you that sunlight is an
important statistic to keep down,” he says.
“We were getting a lot of weird sightings
He has given each of his four seahorses
in the fall of 2015,” says Sandy Trautwein,
a unique logo that he draws with markers in
vice president of husbandry at the Aquarium
his log book. Bathsheba’s is a purple star out-
of the Pacific. “There was a yellow-bellied
lined in red, Daphne’s is a brown striped star
sea snake, bluefin tuna, marlin, whale sharks
in a yellow circle.
— a lot of animals associated with warm
He’s learned that the seahorses don’t like
it when he hovers nearby for too long. Now
Most of these animals eventually left after
he limits his interactions with them to 15 to
ocean temperatures returned to normal, but
30 seconds at a time.
Hanson’s seahorses stayed.
“At first I bugged them too much,” he says.
That may be because Hanson had built
“I was the paparazzi swimming around.”
them a home.
Hanson traces the origins of his seahorse
story back nearly two decades to the early
‘I gotta do something’
It happened like this: In June 2016 he
morning of Dec. 30, 2000.
He was diving solo off Shaw’s Cove in
watched in horror as more than 100 high
Laguna Beach when a slow-moving giant
school football players splashed in the shal-
low waters, right where his seahorses usually
emerged from the abyss. It was a gray whale
whose 40-foot frame cast Hanson in shadow.
The whale could have killed him with a
“I thought, I gotta do something, I gotta do
flick of its tail, Hanson says, but he felt no
something,” he says.
fear. The two made eye contact and, as Han-
Then he remembered that, back in the
son tells it, he felt the whale’s gaze peering
‘Daphne’ is one of the seahorses that Rog
Midwest where he grew up, he used to help
Hanson is studying.
directly into his soul.
the city park service make “fish cribs.” In
It was all over in 10 seconds, but Hanson
early spring they would use brush and twigs
was altered. He had always wanted to live at
ber, “CD Street,” arrived June 29.)
to build what looked like a miniature log
the beach, but after this
“It feels like I’m reading a book, the book
cabin with no roof on an
encounter, he vowed to
of their life, and I can’t put it down,” he says.
ice-covered lake. When
‘I SWEAR, IT HAS
make it happen. It took
He’s also reached out to seahorse scien-
the ice melted, the cribs
across the globe to compare notes. “I
years — 15, in fact — but
MAdE ME A BETTER
won’t say I know the most about seahorses
he finally got a job as a
creating a habitat for fish
in the world, but I know the people who do,”
special education teacher
and other animals.
in the Long Beach pub-
“So I said to myself,
ON lANd I’M VERy
lic school system. He
Amanda Vincent, the director of Project
build them a city that’s
bought a van and parked
Seahorse, says that seahorses spark an emo-
deeper, where feet can’t
tional reaction in almost everyone.
it on Ocean Boulevard.
get to it even at low tide,”
“Remember those books with three flaps
He lived at the beach and
where you can mix the head of a giraffe with
dived every day for 3 1/2
And he did.
the body of a snake and the tail of a monkey?
months before moving to
By July 2016 two
That’s what we’ve got here,” she says. “They
pairs of seahorses had
To amuse himself Rog Hanson | a retired schoolteacher who moved into the new hab-
appeal to the sense of fancy and wonder in
while he lived at the fell in love with scuba diving and the ocean itat. Daphne, the run-
after an ecounter with a whale
ner, was named after
beach, he built an under-
When Mark Showalter, a planetary astron-
water city he called Lit-
omer at the SETI Institute, recently discov-
the nymph from Greek
tleville out of discarded toys he found at the
ered a moon orbiting Neptune, he named it
mythology who flees Apollo, Kenny’s name
bottom of the bay.
Hippocamp in part because of his love of
came from the proprietor of a local kayaking
Hanson saw his first seahorse in January
company. Bathsheba was inspired by a Bible
2016 while checking on Littleville. It was
“I’ve seen them in the wild and they are
story, and her mate, Deep Blue, named after
bright orange, just 4.5 inches long, and Han-
marvelously strange and interesting,” he
a dive shop that has helped sponsor Hanson’s
son, who had logged over a thousand dives in
says. “It’s a fish, but it doesn’t look anything
work since he launched his seahorse study.
the area, knew it didn’t belong there.
like a fish.”
He’s seen Kenny’s and Deep Blue’s bel-
lies swell with pregnancy and noted how
The range of the Pacific seahorse is gen-
Pacific seahorses are among the largest
erally thought to extend from Peru to as far
their partners check in on them daily, fre-
members of the seahorse family. Males can
quently standing sentinel nearby. He’s visited
north as San Diego. This seahorse ended up
grow up to 14 inches long, while females
the fish at odd hours to see how their behav-
about 100 miles north of that.
generally top out at about 11. They come in a
ior changes from morning to night. And he
Scientists said the seahorse and others that
variety of colors, including orange, maroon,
joined her had probably ridden an unusual
mourned when “Kenny” disappeared in Jan-
brown and yellow. They are talented camou-
uary. He still hasn’t come back. (A new mem-
flagers that can alter the color of their exo-
pulse of warm water up the coast, along with
skeleton to blend into their environment.
But perhaps their most distinguishing
characteristic is that they are the only known
species in the animal kingdom to exhibit a
true male pregnancy. Females deposit up to
1,500 eggs in the male’s pouch. The males
incubate the eggs, providing nutrition and
oxygen for the growing embryos. When the
larval seahorses are ready to be released, he
goes into labor — scientists call it “jackknif-
ing” — pushing his trunk toward his tail.
Unicorn beneath the sea
After three years of observation, Hanson
has collected new evidence about seahorse
mating practices. His research suggests that
although most seahorses are monogamous, a
female will mate with two males if there are
no other female seahorses around.
He also found that males, who are in an
almost constant state of pregnancy, tend to
stick to an area about the size of a king-size
mattress, while the females roam up to 150
feet from their home during a typical day.
Eventually, he may be able to help scien-
tists answer another long-standing question:
What is the lifespan of Pacific seahorses in
the wild? Some researchers say about five
years; others think it could be up to 12.
“It will be interesting to see what Roger
finds out,” Vincent says.
In June 2017, about one year after Han-
son began formally tracking the seahorses, he
took on a partner: a young scuba instructor
named Ashley Arnold.
Arnold, who has short red hair and a jocu-
lar vibe, is a former Army staff sergeant who
served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She learned
to dive as part of a program the Salt Lake City
Veterans Affairs hospital offered to female
veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress
disorder and military sexual trauma. Arnold
suffered from both. Diving became her
“All the irritation on the surface disap-
pears when you go under the water,” she says.
“It’s like, ‘What was I concerned about?’ You
forget about everything else. Nothing else
She used her GI Bill to pay for a scuba
instructor course and to set up her own busi-
ness. Now, she finds that if she dives at least
twice a week and has a dog, she does not
need to take medication.
“That’s a pretty big statement in my opin-
ion,” she says.
Arnold and Hanson met in June 2016 on
a dive trip to Catalina. Hanson mentioned
his seahorses. Arnold was intrigued, but still
lived in Salt Lake City.
One year later, Arnold moved to Hunting-
ton Beach and gave Hanson a call.
“I said, ‘Hey Roger, let’s chat. Any chance
I could join you at the seahorses you talked
about?’” she says. “And he decided I was
Now, Arnold and her boyfriend, Jake Fitz-
gerald, check in on the seahorses about once
a week and help Roger rebuild the city he cre-
ated for them.
“We call them our kids because we love
them so much,” Arnold says.
Hanson and Arnold are very protective
of their seahorse family. They tell visitors to
remove GPS tags from their photos. They
swear them to secrecy.
There is little chance anyone would find
Hanson’s seahorses without a guide. Also,
diving in these waters off Long Beach can be
The water is shallow. It’s hard to get your
buoyancy right. A misplaced flipper kick can
stir up blinding sand and silt.
But if Hanson wants to show you his
underwater world, nothing will stop him. He
will hold you firmly by the hand and guide
you down to the forest he built at the bottom
of the bay.
He will use a plastic tent stake, jabbing it
into the bottom to propel himself — and you
holding on — across the ocean floor. When
he spots a seahorse he will use the stake as a
pointer. Through the murky water you strain
to see. Then it appears.
Orange and rigid. Thin snout. Bony plates.
Stripes down the torso. Totally still.
And if you’ve never seen a seahorse in the
wild before, you will feel honored and awed,
as if you’ve just seen a unicorn beneath the