The Top Sea Dragon Facts You Must Know!
A macro dream for many divers, the elusive and spectacular Sea Dragon is a must-see for many keen underwater photographers and Scuba enthusiasts. These unusual looking underwater critters have a very specific geographical location, making them a must-see for divers visiting Australian waters.
What is a Sea Dragon?
The Sea dragon is a small fish from the Syngnathidae family, closely related to pipefish and seahorses.
As with its brother the Seahorse, the Sea dragons name comes from its mythical counterpart the ‘Dragon,’ and spotting a Sea dragon whilst scuba diving is certainly a magical experience. Their ornate appearance lives up to its namesake as they camouflage perfectly to their leafy or kelpy environments with their small, leaf-like fins and colourful bodies.
Where are Sea Dragons found?
There are 3 different species of Sea dragon and they are all found in Southern, South Eastern and Western Australia.
The Weedy Seadragon is also known as the “Common Sea dragon” or “Phyllopteryx Taeniolatus”. It’s more intricate relative The Leafy sea dragon or Phycodurus eques and a very recent discovery, The Ruby Sea dragon, Phyllopteryx Dewysea.
Sea dragons are specialists within their habitats; Weedy and Leafy sea dragons reside in kelpy reefs and seagrass meadows. Whilst Ruby Sea dragons live in sponges at much greater depths, their incredible camouflage keeps them protected from predators such as larger fish, crustaceans and sea anemones.
Where to Dive with Weedy Sea Dragons?
To find a weedy sea dragon, you will need to dive on either the southeastern or southern coast of Australia. The most common of the three species, these guys are native to Sydney and can be found in Botany Bay, which has the largest number recorded in one location. You can also find them an hour’s drive from Melbourne, off the Mornington Peninsula or in the beautiful Jervis Bay, New South Wales.
Where to Dive with Leafy Sea Dragons?
A rarer spot than the Weedy, Leafy seadragons are found off the coast of Fleurieu Peninsula near Adelaide at specific dive spots, such as Rapid Bay and The Bluff. They can also be found at multiple spots on the Yorke Peninsula and Kangaroo Island.
Where to Find the Ruby Sea Dragon?
You probably won’t! The third sea dragon species was only discovered in 2014 when a tissue clippings’ DNA didn’t match the existing species. This extremely rare and elusive species was filmed by an underwater remotely operated vehicle at depths over 50 metres in Western Australia. Far beyond the limits of recreational diving.
When to see Sea Dragons?
Sea dragons breed in the early months of the Australian Summer, from October through to January. This is the best time to dive with them as during the mating season you may be lucky enough to witness their wonderful courting dance.
After reaching sexual maturity at one or two years of age, The sea dragons sway and present their beautiful colour and weedy appendages for their mate in an iconic ritual. At a certain moment, the Mother passes up to 250 bright pink eggs to the Father for him to carry on his tail and fertilize. They attach to a region on his tail called a brood patch, which supplies oxygen to the eggs. This display is a videographers dream but should be very sensitively observed as not to alter their natural behaviour.
The Father then incubates the eggs for up to nine weeks, following this beautiful display it’s possible to see a solitary male Sea dragon swimming along with these jewels encrusted on his tail. Give him some space, only 20 of these newborn Sea dragons grow to full maturity as they are such fragile and tiny creatures. From hatching, the babies are completely independent. For the first 2-3 days after birth, they are sustained by their yolk sack and will then hunt tiny zooplankton and baby shrimp.
What does a Sea Dragon eat?
Sea dragons are toothless carnivores without stomachs, they eat almost constantly covering wide areas whilst searching for prey. They use their long pipe-like snouts to suck up larval fish, plankton and their favourite food, mysid shrimp. These shrimp feed off red algae that thrive in the shade of kelp forests.
Interestingly, Sea Dragons themselves are rarely eaten by their natural predators due to their highly successful camouflage. The Ruby Seadragon’s red colouration masks its presence in the deep waters where red wavelengths of light cannot penetrate. As its body doesn’t reflect any light, it is virtually invisible to prey and predators. Like-wise the Leafy Seadragons appendages blend so seamlessly within the kelp forests it is often missed by larger fish.
Sea Dragon Threats
The Leafy Sea dragon is listed as ‘Near Threatened,’ by ‘ICUN Red List of Threatened Species’ whilst the Weedy Sea Dragon has been listed as ‘Least Concern’. Although there have been many organisations pushing for the status of both species to be reclassified due to recent surveys and reports showing dwindling numbers.
Research carried out by the University of Technology Sydney shows that the Kelp forests that the Weedy Sea dragon depends on, has been thinning out in sites that they are commonly spotted in, particularly in South Sydney. This is due to industrialisation, water pollution and sedimentation.
Similarly, the Leafy Sea dragons biggest threat is that to its habitat and both species are popular as illegal capture as pets. Seadragons are extremely sensitive to change in water depth, temperature and pressure meaning they seldom survive outside of their natural habitat. In fact, Melbourne Sea World Aquarium is one of only three aquariums in the world to breed Weedy Seadragons in captivity, with two breeding successes to date.
How to Conserve the Seadragon Population!
Vote for more marine protected areas! Boat anchoring and mooring can be detrimental to Seadragons natural habitats, stricter enforcement and zoned areas for mooring can help to conserve and protect their homes. Those within Australia can vote for governments with policies increasing the zoning of protected marine areas. Those out of Australia can sign petitions, and share information on social media.
Pollution has a huge impact on natural marine habitats, your plastic consumption and what you throw down the sink has an important role in the general health of our oceans. Be mindful of cleaning products with abrasive chemicals, switch to natural remedies or phosphate-free soaps and detergents. Never pour fat and cooking oils down the sink, allocate a jar to collect your used fats and dispose of it as a solid waste when full.
You can help conserve the Seadragons, by providing information about sightings. Scientists use this data to increase the general understanding of distribution, habitat requirements and management priorities for this lesser-known species. New South Wales based Underwater Research Group ‘URG,’ have adapted software to identify Seadragons by their ‘fingerprints,’ or markings found on the side of their bodies. You can e-mail your photographs or information about sightings to urgdiveclub.org.au, you may even have a Seadragon named after you!
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My first dive was in 2001 at the age of twelve, My Dad is a Divemaster and he joined me on a try dive in Spain where I absolutely fell in love with the underwater world. Later on in my early twenties I was certified in Egypt and my Father and I regularly took diving holidays together. I became obsessed with fish ID and soon realised that I needed to live somewhere I could dive as often as possible.
At 27 I sold my shares in my company based in the UK and moved over to Thailand to the Similan Islands to complete my DIvemaster course. The liveaboard lifestyle lit my soul, I worked in Koh Tao during the West of Thailand’s monsoon season and then returned to my life in the Similan Islands for another season before travelling to Australia, New South Wales. Here I joined the Reef Life Survey team in surveying the local reefs whilst I continued to fun dive out of my back yard, developing my passion for underwater photography. This was my first experience with temperate water and some pretty intense shore dive entry and exits, I’ve loved adapting to different environments and learning the species that come along with them.
The next part of my professional dive journey is completing my instructor course on the Great Barrier Reef, whilst continuing to expand my survey skills through citizen science and conservation projects.
PADI Free Diver
Dream Dive Locations:
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Yolanga Wreck, Queensland