A8 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 ‘Bathsheba?’” 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 broad face. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he says. “She’s our supermodel.” 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 on Earth. “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 arrives. 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 waters. 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 water.” 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 hung out. 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 tists across the globe to compare notes. “I years — 15, in fact — but would fall to the bottom, 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 HuMAN BEING. in the world, but I know the people who do,” special education teacher and other animals. he says. 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 C-MINuS, BuT tional reaction in almost everyone. it on Ocean Boulevard. get to it even at low tide,” uNdERWATER, “Remember those books with three flaps He lived at the beach and Hanson says. where you can mix the head of a giraffe with dived every day for 3 1/2 And he did. I’M MENSA.’ 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 Moreno Valley. 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- us.” 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 seahorses. 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 salvation. “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 matters.” 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 acceptable.” 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 a challenge. 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 sea.