Frito and Cheeto: How rescued seahorses found webcam fame

A seahorse named Funyun was rescued and release by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2017. Photo via Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
A seahorse named Funyun was rescued and release by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2017. Photo via Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Published June 14, 2018

Smile for the camera, Frito. The world is watching, and you have a story to tell.

The tiny seahorse came to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Sunday with fishing line wrapped around her neck. By Wednesday, she became the CMA's newest internet star, with a live "Frito Cam" letting the world peek in on her tank as she gets ready to go back into the Gulf of Mexico.

Who would want to watch a 2-inch seahorse rehabilitate on live camera? Apparently, many people.

In the last 15 years, live cameras in zoo stalls, eagles' nests and aquarium tanks have exploded in popularity. And the zoos and animal rescue organizations that have taken advantage of the new technology have found a cheap and sometimes viral way to spread their environmental message.

Bored office workers can watch a giraffe birth or an osprey hatching. ZooTampa at Lowry Park drew more than 800,000 views on Facebook Live last year when it showed how it transported a manatee for release.

For organizations like CMA, it's a chance to show what the aquarium does, said Bill Potts, chief marketing officer at the hospital that rescues, rehabilitates and, when possible, releases wild marine life back into the environment.

"The neat part for us is to be able to communicate the environmental message to a global audience," Potts said.

The world's first webcam sent images of an office coffee pot on Nov. 22, 1993. Scientists in the computer lab at the University of Cambridge used a camera to check if the coffee in the next room was getting low. In 1994, a fish tank in the Netscape offices became famous when the Amazing Fishcam served up continuously refreshed snapshots of a tank.

Zoos and wildlife organizations, which had long used cameras in their research, saw that the benefits of animal livestreams were obvious — international publicity could translate into ticket sales, donations and memberships.

Charles Eldermire, bird cams project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, hosts six to 10 cameras, depending on the time of the year.

"It's a relatively small investment for what might be a very large amount of web traffic," Eldermire has written.

The Hancock Wildlife Foundation was a pioneer in putting live images on the web, including a 2011 camera on the Lafarge concrete plant in Vancouver that documented the birth of nine eagles over the next seven years. Now the foundation's mandate is to use the internet and video to promote conservation.

The Clearwater aquarium is known for the Hollywood-famous dolphin Winter, whose story of a prosthetic tail became A Dolphin's Tale. The CMA has live webcams year-round on its dolphin, otter and turtle tanks.

But last April, CMA's rescue of a tiny seahorse named Cheeto went viral. A little girl on vacation in Indian Rocks Beach thought she saw a cheese puff drop from a seagull's beak, but realized it was an orange-hued seahorse. She put it in her sand bucket with some seawater and begged her mother to call the aquarium she had just recently visited.

Cheeto turned out to be a female lined seahorse, a type that changes colors to match its surroundings. The animal care team guessed that she lived in red and orange sponges before being swept to the shore. A week after her rescue, the seahorse ate for the first time and also turned bright yellow.

The staff set up a webcam and Cheeto became an instant adorable star, with 200 million combined views.

"It surprised us how quick the response was," Potts said. "When you saw how cute she was and pretty active, we had millions of people viewing it and in places like Chicago, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. It was remarkable."

Cheeto returned to the ocean within three weeks of her rescue. A few weeks later, in May 2017, a couple walking on Indian Rocks Beach noticed a breathing seahorse among the seashells. The couple placed the seahorse back in the water and it helplessly floated to the surface.

They searched for a seahorse rescue, saw the story of Cheeto and called Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The aquarium named the seahorse Funyun and operated on her to release a dangerous air pocket in her belly.

"So Cheeto saved Funyun's life," said Julia Anderson, CMA spokeswoman.

And now comes Frito. A family was snorkeling off Redington Shores last weekend when they found the seahorse tangled among trash, fishing line wrapped around its neck several times. They untangled the tiny seahorse, placed it in a bottle filled with ocean water and called Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Seahorses don't live very long, an average of two years or so. But, Anderson said, "Big or small, we help them all."

As Frito bobs in her tank, with thick aquatic plant leaves swaying with the air pump, the webcam serves CMA's educational mission.

"Seahorses are an indicator species, meaning if we have them it means we have a healthy environment. So the fact that we found it is good news," Potts said. "The fact that we found it with fishing line wrapped around its neck is bad news.

"If through this we educate the public about plastic and trash, and if that one person doesn't cut their fishing line and throw it in the ocean, then our mission is accomplished."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.