A Different Kind of Dragon
The leafy sea dragon (Phycodurus eques) is endemic to the waters of southern Australia and are closely related to seahorses and pipefish. The leafy sea dragon is the South Australian Marine Emblem and they get their name from the leaf-like appendages on their bodies. They resemble pieces of seaweed, which makes them difficult for predators to find in their natural habitat of kelp and seaweed. Leafies are generally brown to yellow in body color with spectacular olive-tinted appendages. As an adult they can reach a total length of 35 centimetres.
The leafy sea dragon sucks up its prey using its long pipe-like snout and small mouth. Its favourite food is mysid shrimps. Being slow moving, they rely heavily on camouflage for survival, but also have long sharp spines along the side of the body. They are also able to change colour to some degree. So much so that they blend in very well with their habitat. For novice divers Leafy sea dragons are extremely difficult to locate and many swim past thinking this majestic creature is just a piece of weed. With experience they are more easily spotted and once found are amazing to watch as their movements mimic the swaying kelp. They steer and turn by moving the tiny, transparent fins along the side of the head and move through the water using the dorsal fins along the spine. Sea dragons have eyes that move independently of one another and the pattern around the eye is unique to each sea dragon. This pattern is used to identify individual animals.
Unlike its relatives the sea horse, the leafy sea dragon is unable to coil or grasp things with its tail.
Unusually it is the male that gets pregnant and gives birth to live young. The female produces up to 250 bright pink eggs and then deposits them on to the male’s tail via a long tube. The eggs then attach themselves to a brood patch on the male’s tail, which supplies them with oxygen. It takes a total of nine weeks for the eggs to begin to hatch, depending on water conditions. The eggs turn a bright purple or orange over this period, after which the male pumps its tail until the infants emerge, a process which takes place over 24–48 hours. The male aids in the babies hatching by shaking his tail, and rubbing it against seaweed and rocks. Once born, the infant sea dragon is completely independent, eating small zooplankton until large enough to hunt mysids. Only around 5% of infants survive. Leafy sea dragons take about 28 months to reach sexual maturity.
The Leafy Sea Dragon generally reside in the same location for their entire life. Divers have recorded seeing the same animal in exactly the same place for many years. The male dragon may travel some distances however to disperse hatching infants to increase their chance of survival. They are then known to return to the same location after eggs have hatched. Often leafy sea dragons are found in mating pairs and it is widely thought that they mate with the same partner for life.
Paul Macdonald is an Underwater Photographer with a passion for leafy sea dragons. He has been diving with them for over 20 years in his local South Australian waters. With his considerable experience he is an expert at finding and photographing this magnificent marine animal. Diving regularly he is able to locate known individual dragons.
Paul says “It is important to have an intimate knowledge of the leafy sea dragon in order to photographically capture its beauty. They have a very unique behavior that needs to be considered to create exceptional photographs.”
Paul regularly plans and leads dives for international photographers to capture leafy sea dragon images. He even shares his photography secrets to help divers capture the best images.
He has an intimate knowledge of the local South Australian dive sites where leafy sea dragons are found. These dive sites such as Edithburgh, Victor Harbour and Rapid Bay are magnificent dive sites in their own right. And finding leafy sea dragons is the icing on the cake at these locations.
Paul started diving in Adelaide in 1990. He has dived extensively throughout South Australia and his favourite dive sites include the South Australian wreck (aka Glenelg Dredge), Seacliff Reef, Port Hughes jetty, Ewens Ponds and Edithburgh jetty. Paul also enjoys diving the North Coast of New South Wales and makes a regular pilgrimage to the Solitary Islands Marine Park. He has also dived throughout Papua New Guinea. Looking for new diving challenges, Paul commenced underwater photography in 2002 with a film camera system before moving into the digital age in 2004. Paul is a certified PADI Digital Underwater Photography Instructor and PADI Divemaster. Paul teaches photography providing workshops and courses in South Australia. During cuttlefish mating season Paul also teaches photography courses in Whyalla.
In 2009 Paul came 3rd in the British Society of Underwater Photographers annual open competition.
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