After clients have met Carol Cozzi-Schmarr, they might just call
her the Seahorse Whisperer. As she lowers her arms into a tank of
water, the mysterious creatures wrap their prehensile tails around
her fingers like old friends. She pours a homemade meal of frozen
shrimp into the water, and on cue, they inhale it into their snouts
like tiny vacuum cleaners.
Cozzi-Schmarr and her husband, Craig Schmarr, run Ocean Rider,
America’s only seahorse farm and the first of its kind in the
world. They started the farm in 1998, but only recently opened
their doors to visitors. Today, their guided tours bring clients
face to face with the alluring genus Hippocampus (horse monster), a
name that doesn’t begin to do justice to this elegant and
As the tour begins, Cozzi-Schmarr talks about why the couple
started their extraordinary Big Island business, part of the
870-acre National Energy Lab of Hawaii Authority, one mile south of
Keahole-Kona International Airport.
“While we were working in South America, we witnessed the
destruction caused when people take seahorses out of their natural
environment,” she said. “Each year, oceans around the world are
robbed of some 30 million seahorses, prized by various cultures not
only as pets but for use in medicines.”
Eager to make a difference, the Schmarrs moved to Kona and
started producing seahorses for people to own as pets.
“We want to inspire environmental awareness and foster
eco-friendly choices,” she said. “A wild-caught seahorse dies
easily when put into a small tank, but a farm-raised seahorse can
live for years and years.”
Boasting 18 out of the 34 seahorse species, Ocean Rider now lays
claim to over 20,000 seahorses, making it the world’s largest
“We use selective techniques to breed for color,” said
Cozzi-Schmarr. “They can be yellow, brown, pink, red, purple,
orange, even green.”
During the tour, Cozzi-Schmarr leads clients to the underground
lava ponds where they catch miniscule shrimp for the specialized
“It’s unusual for a farm to grow its own food,” she said. “The
shrimp graze on green algae full of fatty acids, whose components
encourage seahorses to breed.”
In the hatchery, she shows off tank after tank of baby
seahorses, some just a quarter-inch long and one day old. Seahorses
mate for life, she said. Unlike any other members of the fish
species, the male seahorse gets pregnant, going into labor after 30
days and delivering upward of 2,000 babies at once.
“We feed the babies four to five times a day, and it’s tough to
keep them alive,” she said. “When we started, only 10 percent of
them survived. We’ve improved that number to 50 percent.”
Outside, clients peer into dozens of big blue tanks holding
seahorses up to a foot long. Participants watch how the seahorses
suck in the shrimp, and how they link tails with others as they
swim. The tour’s highlight comes as Cozzi-Schmarr helps clients
actually touch the seahorses, which respond without fear to
submerged human hands.
In the packing and shipping area, Cozzi-Schmarr demonstrates how
they put seahorses in plastic bags with water and oxygen, enclose
them in a cooler box and ship them overnight.
“We sell online straight to people’s homes, anywhere in the
continental U.S.,” she said.
Ocean Rider does not sell seahorses within Hawaii, to make sure
that pet owners don’t accidentally release them into local waters.
Rates per seahorse range from $65-$300, based on color, size and
ease of care. The Ocean Rider Web site takes prospective seahorse
owners through the specifics of tank setup, and online specialists
stand ready to answer questions.
The Schmarrs plan to expand their visitor component in the
future, adding a cafe, larger gift shop and aquarium room. And,
since cruise ships dock in nearby Kona, they are negotiating to
offer Ocean Rider as a shore excursion. As it stands, however, the
tour provides clients with a rare encounter not soon forgotten.
“The Discovery Channel called the seahorse the sixth most
popular and fabled marine animal,” said Cozzi-Schmarr. “We hope
that everyone who goes on our tour leaves feeling more
Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm
73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu Hwy., Suite 118
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
A one-hour tour costs $25
per person. Reservations are
Clients can book private, upgraded tours for a maximum of four
people. This VIP option costs $150 per person and caters to
Tours are commissionable at 15 percent.