Two Blacktip potbellied seahorses (blacktipius potbellius) line up in the starting gate Thursday at Blacktip Island’s new seahorse racetrack off the island’s sheltered west coast. The facility has drawn the ire of local marine life activists. (photo courtesy of Joanne Merriam)
Blacktip Island tourism officials hope a new seahorse racing facility, opened off the island’s west coast Wednesday, will draw more scuba divers to the small Caribbean island.
“It’s an up and coming sport that’s really taking off,” developer George Graysby said. “In the past year seahorse racing’s become the number one underwater spectator sport, bigger even than being a spotter for lionfish culls.
“We built an industry-standard .018-furlong hippodrome, with a three-foot-long backstretch,” Graysby said. “The track’s groomed sand and turtle grass. Those little suckers move around it pretty damn quick, once you adjust your expectations.”
The facility drew fierce opposition from People for the Ethical Treatment of the Marine Environment.
“This is a cruel sport, run by cruel people,” PETME president Harry Pickett said. “They capture young sea horses and raise them in total confinement. They pump them full of growth hormones. They shock them to make them swim faster.
“And if one of them has a bad race, or breaks a tail, they euthanize it strait away,” Pickett added. “It’s animal cruelty at its basest. And for what? Entertainment?”
Racing enthusiasts brushed aside those concerns.
“Harry needs to climb down off is high horse, loosen up and have some fun,” local race fan Rocky Shore said. “I mean, they don’t call it the most exciting five to six minutes in underwater sports for no reason.”
Island officials worry the track may bring a surge in crime on the island.
“We’re alert for any on-track or off-track gambling,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Anyone bets on a race, odds are they’ll be caught. That goes for placing bets on who gets caught betting as well.
“We’ve also taken steps to keep mob influence off the island,” Marquette said. “Organized crime ruined the seahorse racing industry on Aruba last year.”
Surprisingly, the racecourse found unexpected allies among island naturalists.
“Nudibranchs are the jockeys, you see, and a mount finishing sans-jockey is disqualified,” said Pelagic Society member Piers Planck. “We’ve had quite the uptick in inquiries about seahorses and nudibranchs. If this derby racing gets people interested in marine conservation, we’re all for it.
“Some species do make better jockeys,” Planck said. “The sea goddess family – the chromodoris – are usually best. They have the strongest grip. But we also had a sargassum nudibrach – scyllaea pelagica – that you couldn’t dislodge with a stick. We tried. Quite vigorously. Though not for gambling purposes.”