A pair of weedy seadragons swims in formation under Flinders Pier, South Australia
The Mornington Peninsula on the southeast coast of Victoria is home to many famous piers, but one in particular stands out as a particularly niche and incredible location. In a small coastal town known as Flinders, there is a Dragon’s Den—and no, I’m not talking about Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon; I am talking about something much more elusive and sought after. Floating within the confines of the kelp and seagrass meadows is a quaint and peculiar animal that has recently had its time in the limelight and exploded in popularity. I am, of course, talking about the weedy seadragon.
Native to the southern reefs of Australia—situated along the southern coast from northern New South Wales to Perth, Western Australia—the weedy seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) is part of the subfamily Syngnathinae and is related to the seahorse and pipehorse family. One of the many things that makes them so special is their unique and exquisite appearance. Adult dragons have a long, slender body, pipe-like snout with a small terminal mouth and are a stunning golden color, with intricate patterns and markings of whites, purples, browns and blues.
Their body is adorned with appendages that resemble the kelp and weeds that surround them, making them masters of disguise and quite tricky to spot to the untrained eye. Weedy seadragons have long, slender necks, which allow them to quietly sneak up on potential pray and quickly “snap” their heads forward, sucking in little shrimp-like crustaceans called mysids—a seadragon’s favorite meal. Juveniles may be as small as 5mm when freshly hatched (and incredibly hard to find), but most adults range from 35–40cm (around 14–16in) in length, essentially looking like a floating piece of kelp with eyes—they are the phasmids of the sea!
An underwater photographer in search of dragons
Not often do you find a dive site where you can walk into the water from the parking lot and see one of the most amazing creatures in the ocean, but at Flinders Pier you can do exactly that. A convenient, purpose-built parking lot above the beach allows easy and fast access for divers to enter the water and the Dragon’s Den. The dive site is rather unique for the area, not only due to the amazing fauna that live there, but the flora as well. Sweeping fields of seagrass stretch as far as the eye can see, projecting out from either side of the pier and creating wonderful habitat for the seadragons.
Under the pier itself is a total contrast: Patches of sand are littered with historical objects—wooden logs, metallic structures, and even an old engine block that every year becomes home to a new generation of Maori octopuses. Over the years, these have all become a permanent, integral part of the dive site, providing refuge for an array of critters, both juvenile and adult. The pier structure above the surface is as much a part of the dive site as the sandy bottom, providing pylons that are littered with corals and plants, as well as fantastic surface imagery for some more creative photos.
One of the most astonishing aspects of this dive site is that the seadragons thrive under the pier itself. Hiding within the confines of the seagrass meadows or looking for a meal around the coral-encrusted pylons, the weedy seadragon is usually low to the seafloor, which can make them a bit tricky to photograph. Contorting your body into extremely unnatural positions is usually a regular activity under Flinders Pier.
The pylons at Flinders Pier add something extra to the background of wide-angle images
Planning Your Dive
Tide and weather play a big part in diving Flinders. Situated on the Western Port side of the peninsula, winds and tide can change very quickly, and will influence the water clarity in a big way. On a good day, visibility can be 65 feet plus—flat seas and soft northwesterly winds are big pluses when planning a dive at Flinders. It is also recommended to dive here at high tide as the flow of water brings in clearer, calmer water. The maximum depth of Flinders Pier is a very easy 16 feet, allowing for long dive times and accessibility to divers of every level. If you’re planning on diving here, be patient; it is not often that the conditions are perfect, but when they are, it is one of the best dive sites in the area.
Seadragon numbers are steady all year round, but undoubtedly the best time to see and swim with them is during the Australian summer. From October through to January, not only is the water considerably warmer but the male dragons begin to hold a beautiful assortment of bright pink eggs. Like other pipehorses and seahorses, the male dragon receives the eggs from the female by attaching the eggs to his tail, fertilizing them and brooding them until they are ready to hatch. This phenomenon is a wonder to behold and photograph, and can provide an amazing experience for photographers or videographers, as well as those without a camera looking to see something unique and amazing.
A male weedy seadragon brooding bright pink eggs
A Wolf in the Den
Flinders Pier recently made headlines not just for its magical inhabitants. As is always the way with wooden piers, years of inclement weather has given Flinders Pier a mighty beating, reducing the overall structural integrity of the pier. The local council voted to remove the pier entirely and replace it with a concrete one, putting the health of the ecological system in jeopardy. Fortunately, people power rose up. Tireless campaigning from the team of Save Flinders Pier saw thousands of signatures gathered against the removal of the existing pier (or more particularly, the pylons themselves), one of those signatures belonging to a very famous and fellow dragon lover, Sir David Attenborough. With a signature like that on our side, it wasn’t long until the council backflipped on their decision and retreated to square one, keeping the existing structure in place.
Planning is now centered around refurbishment of the pier, and more importantly keeping the existing wooden pylons in place—similar to the incredibly successful rebuild of Blairgowrie Marina, which has become a macro haven on the Mornington Peninsula. For now, this backlash from the community has saved Flinders Pier, and we can only hope that whatever direction forward the council pursues, new plans will consider the ecological impact on the dragons and fellow critters that call Flinders Pier home.
The presence of weedy seadragons helped save the pier from destruction
Living with Dragons
To this day, I still remember the first time I photographed the seadragons. I had just returned from an overseas trip to the Philippines and had bought myself a new camera—an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. My anticipation to get into the water and photograph the elusive weedy seadragon was too much to bear. I geared up and raced to the dive site, where I was met with less than three feet of visibility. While I was disappointed, I did not let this stop me; I geared up and jumped in the water with my brand new camera and within minutes was already lost. Navigation under Flinders Pier is pretty simple—follow the pylons. Well, when visibility does not extent past your hand, you would be shocked how hard it is to simply find a pylon!
Nevertheless, I pushed on. About 10 minutes into my dive, my head was buried at the base of a pylon—I finally found one—looking for dragons. I noted a strange pressure on my back and as I turned around saw a huge smooth stingray sitting on my tank, bathing in my bubbles. Naturally, we both shocked each other and swam off in separate directions! But my hunt was not over, and this would not force me out of the water—I had to battle on and continue my search.
As it turned out, patience and perseverance is indeed a virtue, for lo and behold, there in front of my very own eyes was this magical piece of golden kelp with eyes! Like a madman, I turned my camera and strobes on and starting shooting away, taking absolutely terrible photos—but photos nonetheless! It is a dive that I remember to this day and will never forgot. Since then, I have upgraded my camera to an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and have been fortunate enough to dive in much better visibility with these amazing creatures many times. While cameras, conditions and certainly the quality of my photos have improved, my awe and respect for the dragons and appreciation of their beauty remains as strong as day one.
Weedy seadragons can be shot with both wide-angle and macro lenses to create different kinds of images
Being such an enigmatic creature, the photographic opportunities for weedy seadragons are endless. From high-detail macro to wide-angle sunburst shots, shooting seadragons is always extremely rewarding. Due to their natural habitat of seagrass beds and the less-than-ideal visibility that Flinders Pier typically receives, shooting up tends to allow you to reduce the amount of backscatter and messy backgrounds in your images, and also helps to capture not only the sun but parts of the pier structure to add context.
When shooting wide angle, use a high f-stop and shutter speed—f/16 and 1/160s, respectively—to help capture the detail of the dragon without risk of blowing out the highlights of the sun. Remember, we are typically diving in shallow water of less than 15 feet, so restricting the amount of highlights is crucial. Strobes should be dialed up to approximately half power to account for the higher f-stop and angled out slightly away from the dome port to help capture the colors of the dragon without picking up too much backscatter. For macro, I like to do the opposite and open up my aperture to f/2.8–5.6, creating a very shallow depth of field: I will usually have a sharp image from the snout to the neck, with the remainder of the body and background blurred, with some nice bokeh. As always, focusing on the eye of the dragon is crucial.
Adding a diver to the image gives a sense of scale to the seadragons
As always, resist the temptation to rush in and risk scaring away your subject. I’ve seen so many people who cannot contain their excitement miss incredible photo opportunities due to rushing a shot and silting up the area or spooking the dragon so it turns away. Study the animal’s behavior and movement. Allow it to get comfortable with your presence before approaching it face to face and moving in closer to get the shot.
Due to the significant number of divers who frequent Flinders Pier, most dragons are familiar with photographers, but I am always conscious of how many people have photographed an individual before me and try to reduce the number of shots I take by waiting for the subject to be in an aesthetically pleasing position, with a nice background and the sun in the frame. This often takes a long time, but the wait is well worth it for a satisfying photo—as well as the reduction of stress on the dragon by keep strobe flashes to a minimum.
Juvenile weedy seadragons are incredibly hard to find and photograph, but well worth the effort
Something that I continue to find rewarding is taking guests diving (especially international guests) to see the weedy seadragons through my work as a dive guide at The Scuba Doctor, situated in Rye. Seeing the smiles beaming under their regulators and eyes popping under their masks when we come across our first dragon is always a thrill—that feeling of sharing something so incredible is an element of my work that I will never take for granted. I am in such a fortunate position through work to be able to take my camera with me and capture some of these moments, many of which become some of my favorite photos that I share with you here. I would encourage everyone to get into the water with these amazing animals and experience their beauty for yourself.
To me, the weedy seadragon reminds me that everything exists in a delicate balance and must be respected as well as revered. They are visually some of the most stunning animals we have the privilege of diving with, but they are also an image of resilience. That such a fragile-looking creature can survive rough seas, predation, changing of seasons, and ocean conditions always amazes me.
As far as photography goes, they are certainly challenging to shoot, particularly when tide and conditions are working against you. However, the reward for patience, investigation and curiosity is some spectacular photos. So many of us grow up dreaming of the existence of magical dragons, and not many realize that they do exist—beneath the surface of the Dragon’s Den.
Under the pier there be dragons!
Find out all you need to know about capturing the other creatures of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula in Sam’s comprehensive underwater photographer’s guide. Check out more of Sam’s work in our Photographer of the Week article.
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