• Daryll Rivett

The Infamous Leafy Sea Dragon - South Australia's Marine Emblem.

About the Leafy Sea Dragon

Sea dragons are some of the most ornately camouflaged creatures on the planet. Adorned with gossamer, leaf-shaped appendages over their entire bodies, they are perfectly outfitted to blend in with the seaweed and kelp formations they live amongst.

COMMON NAME: Leafy Sea Dragon

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Phycodurus eques

TYPE: Fish

SIZE: Up to 35cm (13.8 ")


The Leafy Sea Dragon (Leafies) is closely related to seahorses and pipefish, and this superbly camouflaged fish is endemic to Australian temperate waters. It is known from the southern coastline of Australia, from Kangaroo Island, South Australia to south-western Western Australia.

Habitat Leafies are usually seen on kelp-covered rocky reefs in depths from about 3 m to 50 m, and are generally brown to yellow in body colour with spectacular olive-tinted appendages. This colouration and leafy appendages give it excellent camouflage in amongst the natural seagrass and in kelp-covered rocky reefs as shown in the 2 photo's below.

Where to see Leafies in South Australia

South Australia is actually blessed with a multitude of dive sites where Leafies reside, however the most popular and visited site is 'Rapid Bay' on the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide. The drive (approx 2hrs) follows the contours of the land over undulating hills with spectacular views across the ocean before eventually ending at a beach surrounded by imposing limestone cliffs where two jetties jut out into the water.

One jetty is slowly decaying, having been closed for years due to storm damage. The newer jetty, opened in 2009, has been colonised by sea life, but the old jetty is where most of the action is. There, large schools of fish, nudibranchs, sea stars and visiting rays vie for divers’ attention with the resident “leafies”. As a bonus, there is also a small population of the leafies equally fascinating cousin, the Weedy sea dragon, however quite irregular sitings than the Leafies.

About 50 metres of open water separates the jetties, so confident swimmers can swim over and snorkel, but you’ll have a far better chance of spotting one with a scuba tank that lets you stay underwater for longer. If you don’t have your own gear, there are multiple operators offering dive tours departing from Adelaide, as well as shore dives that go from Rapid Bay.



Leafies are shaped to give themselves a near-perfect camouflage in seaweed. But the leaf-like structures are not used for swimming. To move, this species uses two fins—one pectoral and one dorsal, and are so thin they are almost transparent.


As with sea horses, Leafy males are responsible for childbearing. But instead of a pouch, like sea horses have, male Leafies have a spongy brood patch on the underside of the tail where females deposit their bright-pink eggs during mating. The eggs are fertilised during the transfer from the female to the male. The males incubate the eggs and carry them to term, releasing miniature sea dragons into the water after about four to six weeks.

Threats to Survival

Sea dragons survive on tiny crustaceans such as Mysids, or sea lice. It is not known if they are preyed upon by other animals. They are, however, frequently taken by divers seeking to keep them as pets. In fact, such takings shrank their numbers so critically by the early 1990's that the Australian Government placed a complete protection on the species. Pollution and habitat loss have also hurt their numbers, and they are currently listed as near threatened.

The resident population stays at the jetty year round, and while Rapid Bay is a popular spot for families in summer when the campsite is usually full, it’s rarely crowded beneath the surface.

For a real treat, visit during the mating season, which begins in spring and runs from October through to January. While you’ll need to keep your distance to avoid interrupting the Leafies, this is also a good chance to spot the usually solitary creatures as they pair up.

In closing as a resident of Adelaide with approx 500 dives, Dive Master Cert, am always happy to provide advice, information and guide you to see these wonderful creatures.

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