The perfectly camouflaged leafy sea dragon is a master of mimicry that drifts slowly over the sea grass. Swaying back and forth in the light surge as they hunt, their hypnotic mannerisms can fool even the most seasoned eyes.
Leafy sea dragons (Phycodurus eques) are related to pipefish and seahorses and they share the same fused jaw feature. They can reach up to 30 centimeters in length and are often found alone or in loose groups. Leafys prefer temperate to cooler waters and are depth sensitive, living between 3 and 10 meters. It’s the male that carries the eggs, up to 250 at a time, and they appear as a bright-red patch on the abdomen of the male's belly.
Like pipefish and seahorses, leafy sea dragons employ small rakers on either side of their head and body that help them to move through the water effortlessly, stabilizing against surge and current. What sets them apart from the others is their amazing kelp-like appendages. Seeing one for the first time, in their natural habitat, is nothing short of show-stopping.
The leafy sea dragon is endemic to South Australia, and Rapid Bay Jetty was my destination of choice to find them. The pylons under the jetty are adorned with soft corals, sponges, colonial sea squirts and the kelp that creates the perfect habitat for the leafys.
Mike Bartick was born and raised in Southern California, not far from the ocean in Huntington Beach. After finding his first nudibranch on an Open Water checkout dive, he was immediately hooked on diving. Bartick, who splits his time between the Indo-Pacific and the Eastern Pacific as a freelance photographer, photojournalist and field guide, shoots with a Nikon D300 and D300s, Sea and Sea housings, and YS-D1 and YS 250 pro strobes. To see more of his work, visit saltwaterphoto.com.