Horsing Around 6-23-2006

Ocean Rider harnesses the tourism industry

By: Marty Wentzel

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 endangered species.

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 collection.

“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 seahorse diet.

“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 inspired.”


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 high-end clients.

Tours are commissionable at 15 percent.