Leafy seadragons are surely among Australia’s most fascinating photographic subjects
Australia, the great brown land Down Under! Home to so many iconic and often strange looking creatures, both above and below the waterline. But surely few of those creatures are as unique, visually spectacular and intriguing as the leafy seadragon. Known colloquially as “leafies” but more correctly as Glauert’s seadragon (Phycodurus eques), these elegant fish are endemic to Australia’s southern and western coasts yet are mainly associated with South Australia, where they have been adopted as the state’s marine emblem.
Belonging to the same family as seahorses and pipefish, these timid animals typically grow to between 7.5 and 9.5 inches in length. They use their ornate leaf-like appendages as incredibly effective camouflage to blend in with their surroundings, becoming almost invisible to the untrained eye. The body of the Australian leafy seadragon is generally brown to yellow in color, while its spectacular appendages are typically olive tinted. Leafies can also change their coloration as needed, such as in open water when they take on the appearance of floating seaweed!
Leafies are so well-camouflaged, they can easily pass off as drifting seaweed—and they can even change color to blend in
A Day in the Life
Leafy seadragons are most commonly found among patches of kelp and seaweed, usually in sandy areas at depths of less than 100 feet, where they live a mainly solitary existence with a life cycle of between 5 and 7 years. Their habitats provide ample supplies of small crustaceans such as sea lice, plankton and larval fish, which they suck up through their long, pipe-like snouts.
It was previously believed that leafies stay in a specific habitat throughout their lifespan, but recent research has indicated that they will occasionally leave their primary locations and migrate many hundreds of feet. Moreover, it seems they have a keen sense of direction and are able to navigate back to their primary spots. Interestingly, leafy seadragons do not appear to have any specific predators—perhaps the ultimate compliment to their amazing camouflage!
Like all bony fish, leafies use their swim bladders to maintain position in the water column. They move through the water using the dorsal fins along the spine, and use tiny translucent fins along the side of the head to steer and turn their bodies to change direction. Although the amazing leaf-like appendages look like some form of fin, they actually play no part in how these animals move and are simply there for camouflage—the overall effect being that leafies seem to glide majestically through the water!
At up to 9.5 inches long, leafy seadragons require a wide-angle or midrange lens in order to capture the entire body—skin lobes and all
Baby-Making, Leafy Style
Leafy seadragon breeding season is during the warmer months of the Southern Hemisphere, starting late in the Australian spring around October and ending in late February as the summer comes to a close. It is all temperature dependent and triggered by warmer coastal water, but when it happens the males give up their solitary lifestyle to court the females.
When mating occurs, the females deposit between 250 to 300 bright-pink eggs onto the spongy “brood patch” on the underside of the male’s tail. He then incubates the eggs, carrying them for between six and eight weeks until they are ready to hatch, changing color from pink to purple or orange. The eggs hatch at a rate of two or three at a time, and the male assists by shaking his tail and rubbing it up against seaweed and rocks—a process that typically takes many hours.
When they emerge from their eggs, the young seadragons are around one fifth to a quarter of an inch in length and completely on their own, surviving initially by living off the still-attached egg capsule until their snouts are developed enough to start hunting. Leafies are fully grown after about two years and ready to mate, but it is estimated that only about five percent of the hatchlings survive to reach that stage of maturity.
Be very careful when shooting a male hauling eggs, as they may get dislodged if he is harassed in any way
Poachers and Protections
Perhaps surprisingly, bad weather is one of the main threats to the leafy seadragon’s survival. Unlike their seahorse cousins, leafies have no tail and therefore no way to attach themselves to the kelp and seaweed. Thus, big waves can sweep them from their safe havens and wash them up on the shore.
While storms and rough seas are part of nature and, as such, are factored into the overall ebb and flow of the leafy seadragon reproductive cycle, there is no doubt that changes to Australian weather patterns induced by global warming are also negatively impacting these delicate creatures.
An even bigger threat, however, is the insidious practice of poaching leafy seadragons for the aquarium trade and private collectors, where their presence in the water makes them so highly prized, they are believed to fetch prices of up to $15,000. Poaching had such a dramatic impact on overall numbers that by the early 1990s, they had to be formally protected in the states of South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. By the end of that decade, they were provided with national protection by the Australian Government. Despite these efforts, the leafy seadragon has been classified as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2006.
Before poaching really became bad, anecdotal indications by experienced South Australian divers suggest that it was quite common to see up to 30 leafies at the most popular sites. These days, it’s a good day if you encounter half a dozen. There is clearly a long way to go before these iconic creatures are restored to their former status.
Leafy seadragons face threats from the effects of climate change—and from rogue divers poaching them for the aquarium trade
The Better Way to Capture Seadragons
Because the leafy seadragon’s camouflage is so effective, they are amazingly difficult to spot—even when they are right in front of you! So, unless you have unlimited time and patience, you will be best served by using a guide. Several years ago, the choices for guides were quite limited, but these days a quick check with Dr. Google shows that there are ample individuals and dive shops offering “leafy seadragon tours.”
Leafies are very delicate creatures that are very territorial and easily stressed, so great care is needed when interacting with them, particularly when the males are carrying eggs. Under no circumstances should they be moved up and down in the water column, because their swim bladders are easily damaged by sudden changes in pressure. These animals do not have eyelids and are believed to be sensitive to bright light. Therefore, they should not be exposed to video lights over an extended period or excessive use of strobes. Take only a minute or two to get your shots, and if you need longer, come back to the same individual after taking a substantial break.
Overall, the leafy seadragon is an impressive example of Australian marine biodiversity and encounters with them are truly memorable, but they must be respected and treated with great care.
Due to the leafy seadragon’s sensitivity to light, avoid spending too long on one individual, whether you’re using strobes or video lights
A frontal shot combined with a dark background provides an interesting perspective
The author’s dive buddy Jayne Jenkins and her beautiful subject
In more normal times, Don is based in Bali, and his website www.indopacificimages.com has extensive location guides, articles and images on some of the world’s best diving locations and underwater experiences. Make sure to check out DPG’s Photographer of the Week article featuring more of Don’s awesome pictures.
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