Chasing the seadragon

dragon sign_mirrorOne month ago I realised one of my absolute critter dreams. I got to see Leafy Seadragons (Phycodurus eques) in the wild!  We had to travel to southern West Australia to find them. An area which is absolutely stunning and worth checking out, even if it didn’t have dragons. Since it was so much fun, I decided to share some of the highlights of the trip with you. Get ready for lots of pictures and start checking your calendar when you can go dragon hunting yourself!

dragons

Dragon hunting in Bremer Bay and Cape Le Grand (Western Australia)

We started in Bremer Bay, a sleepy little town that only really gets busy in summer tourist season. Since we got there well before high season, we practically had the town (and more importantly the ocean) to ourselves. Before we even got to hunt for dragons, we explored some of the many beaches and oh my, was that worth it!

Beach view

Banky Beach

Tanika clifwalk

Climbing down to Banky Beach

Surfing native dog beach

Surfers at Native Dog Beach

Obviously our main goal was to find seadragons, preferably Leafy Seadragons. So we decided to go for a dive with Craig from Bremer Bay Dive. Craig is known as the expert to find dragons and knows the area like the back of his hand. Weather conditions were not ideal and unfortunately we only had one chance for a boat dive, so the stakes were high when we set out on a blustery morning.

Bremer Bay faces the Southern Ocean (the one around Antarctica) so the water tends to be on the chilly side. On the bright side, the water is a LOT clearer than what I have gotten used to in Perth. An average day will often have more than 20m visibility and I have been told it gets much better than this. Just dropping in and enjoying the views of the rocky reefs covered in kelp and schooling fish is worth diving here.

Schooling fish

Good conditions for dragon searching

Blue Devil

A Western Blue Devil (Paraplesiops sinclairi)

Now this might be obvious, especially for someone who studies cryptic critters for a living, but seadragons have some pretty damn good camouflage! 30 minutes into the dive we still hadn’t caught as much as a glimpse of one. I was still enjoying myself and I know better than most that the ocean is not a zoo. But I also realised that with the bad weather coming in, this was likely to be our only chance of seeing a Leafy Seadragon.

Leafy seadragon profile

The beautiful Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques)

So when a few minutes later Craig enthusiastically pointed out a dragon, I was more than a little bit excited. It’s hard to describe just how amazing these animals are, or how I overwhelmed I felt to actually get to see one. But I’m getting goosebumps just writing this and thinking about the dive. Leafy Seadragons are without a doubt one of the most outlandish, beautiful and downright weird fish that roam the seas, and I count my lucky stars that I got to see them underwater.

Having fulfilled our Leafy Seadragon mission, we relaxed a few more days in Bremer Bay, hoping for the weather to clear before driving to Cape Le Grand National Park in Esperance. The area is known for it’s stunning beaches, great hikes, and outstanding marine life.

lucky bay

Lucky Bay, Cape Le Grand National Park

We camped in Lucky Bay, while we were not very lucky with the weather (thunderstorms and tents are not the best combination), the bay itself is gorgeous. If you’ve ever seen a picture of kangaroo lounging on a white sand beach with turquoise waters, chances are very high it was taking in Lucky Bay (see below). More interesting for us is that you can also dive right off the beach, and that dragons are rumored to roam the waters.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, we decided to give it a go and hope for the best. The rocky dive site is surrounded by vast seagrass meadows, which make an ideal habitat for the Leafy Seadragon’s cousin; the Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). Weedies have less frills, and are a bit more colourful than Leafies. They also seem to be more common, and are found higher up the Australian coast than Leafies. We don’t know much more about them, but their preferred habitats are disappearing, which is cause for concern.

Weedy seadragon Tanika

Tanika watching a Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Initially we started looking for Leafies (which are sometimes present at the site) near the rocks covered with kelp, but the swelly conditions really weren’t helping. Once we changed our focus to the seagrass instead, it did not take us very long before we found two beautiful Weedy Seadragons. It was interesting to see that these Weedies were much more green in colour compared to the ones I’d seen before in Perth and Sydney. Perhaps an adaption to the high seagrass cover in the area? Food for thought!

The day after, it was already time to head back to Perth, although I would have loved to stay around much longer (even with the crappy weather). I definitely hope I’ll make it back there soon, not just to chase more dragons. There is more to do in the areas than just diving and snorkeling. Next time I’m definitely bringing a surfboard and my hiking shoes. Most of all, I’ll make sure to have more than just a week to do both spots.

Tanika beach 3

Beach walks, not a bad way to spend your time between dives

If you’ve made it this far in this blog, well done! As a reward I can offer you some more pictures of the trip, enjoy! 🙂

Leafy seadragon Craig

Craig the dragon-chaser and a male Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques)

 

Coastal flowers

Bremer Bay flora

Tanika bushwalk

Heading to a hidden beach

Tanika beach

Wandering the beach in Bremer Bay

Dragon gate

Fancy seadragon gate

 

 

 

 

 

Leafy seadragons: Australia’s favourite fish

In a recent poll organised by the Australian Society for Fish Biology and Lateral Magazine, the Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques) was voted as Australia’s favourite fish. This exquisite critter definitely deserves its place at the top, to celebrate it amazingness I wrote a blog about it. This blog appeared originally as an article in Lateral Magazine, you can find the original version here.


According to the popular stereotype, marine biologists spend their careers diving on colourful coral reefs, cuddling dolphins, and wrestling sharks. Unfortunately, the truth is a lot more mundane; we are more likely to spend our days diving into data analyses, cuddling too many cups of coffee, and wrestling grant proposals.

But sometimes we get lucky enough to work with animals that exceed the wildest stereotypes. Studying marine life is always exciting, but some animals are so unique they just stop you in your tracks; they make you thank your lucky stars for not listening to your mother when she said ‘marine biologist’ was not a real job.

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Two leafy seadragons. Photo credit: David Harasti

For me, the ultimate awe-inspiring fish is the leafy seadragon (Phycodurus eques). “Leafies” only occur in temperate waters off southern Australia, and they are, to say the very least, unique animals — the kind that makes you wonder whether evolution had a stroke of brilliance or just a stroke. Seadragons belong to the Syngnathidae family, which also includes seahorses and pipefishes. Even in a family that is known for their oddly-shaped members, leafies stand out big-time.

These beautiful fish have the head of a seahorse and the body of a seaweed, with flamboyant leaf-like protrusions that wouldn’t look out of place at the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Leafy seadragons defy the idea of what a fish should look like.

Maybe that is why they are so popular with fish enthusiasts all over the world. Scuba divers fly halfway across the globe to dive in the cold waters off southern Australia, hoping to catch a glimpse of them. In the few public aquaria that display them, including Melbourne Aquarium, leafies are one of the absolute crowd-pleasers. For fish-lovers, this Australian endemic fish is at least as iconic as kangaroos or koalas.

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Leafy seadragon. Photo credit: Tony Brown

Despite their popularity, we know surprisingly little about leafy seadragons. Adult leafies are one of the largest members of the Syngnathidae family, with adults measuring up to 35cm. Like seahorses, male seadragons carry their mating partner’s fertilised eggs; unlike seahorses, they do not have a pouch. Instead, females lay their eggs on the underside of the male’s tail, where they remain until hatching.

Leafy seadragons depend on kelp and seagrass beds as their habitat, where they blend in supremely well to avoid predators. Unfortunately, these habitats are in decline all over the world, including in Australia, caused by coastal development and potentially climate change. As a result, seadragon population numbers are decreasing, although the species is currently not considered to be endangered.

Seadragon

Admiring a Weedy seadragon, a close cousin of the Leafy seadragon. Photo credit: Greg Lecoeur

One would assume that the decreasing population numbers of a unique Australian emblem would inspire multitudes of researchers to study it. Strangely, this is not the case. A search of the scientific literature suggests that nobody has studied them in the wild for almost a decade. This lack of research on evolutionary distinct marine critters is unfortunately not unique to seadragons. It extends to many other species that do not fit in the ‘food’, ‘danger’, or ‘Pixar-famous’ categories in which landlubbers like to divide marine life. If so little attention is paid to the struggles of Australia’s most recognisable and charismatic fish, then what hope do other species have?

Time will tell what the future holds for the leafy seadragon. I, for one, am doing what I can to ensure generations after ours will continue to have their minds boggled by this incredible animal. If you care about seadragons, one way to help is to join citizen science projects such as iNaturalist or Seagrass Spotter. These projects collect observations from divers and snorkellers, directly helping scientists better understand and protect these animals and their habitats.


A short note about this blog: Two weeks after the poll I was awarded a research grant by the Sea World Research and Rescue Foundation to study the seadragons using eDNA. Hopefully the results that will come out of this research will help to better understand and protect these beautiful fishes.

Critters in the cold

Squid

Squid during nightdive in Camp Cove (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

I have been back in Perth for well over a month now and it had been close to two months without diving, so I was starting to get anxious to get back in the water. I don’t really have the time to go abroad at the moment, so I jumped on the opportunity to do a short trip to Sydney. A good friend (Greg Lecoeur) had an extended stopover before flying to Europe and asked me if I wanted to join him to find and photograph the elusive Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). Not only would it mean interesting dives, it also gave me the opportunity to catch up with another friend (the amazing Emma Camp) who does some great research at the University of Technology Sydney. The departure of the trip was a bit rushed but I managed to bring everything, except for my actual camera. Luckily both Emma and Greg are great underwater photographers, so I could enjoy the dives and get better pictures than I could ever take of them, win-win!

The waters around Sydney might be a lot colder than what I am used to, but they do offer some sweet diving and a lot of really interesting critters. The best known and most sought after critters in temperate waters in Australia are without a doubt the Seadragons. Seadragons are endemic to Australia (=found nowhere else) and only live in its southern, colder waters. Two species exist within reach of divers: The Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) and the Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques). We went looking for the Weedy Seadragon, as the leafy variety is only found further south. I had been told where to look and that there were a lot more interesting critters to find, but when looking for critters it’s always a good idea to have a local guide. Through a friend I got in touch with a very keen local diver who knows the waters around Sydney better than anyone. Andrew (check his site here) kindly offered to take us diving and promised us dragons and much more.

Seadragon

Checking out a gorgeous Weedy Seadragon (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

Our first dives were in the southern part of Botany Bay, Kurnell is known as one of the most reliable spots for seadragons. After the shock of hopping in 16 degrees cold water (I’m used to nearly double!) I managed to have a look around and appreciate the site. Descent visibility, kelp, rocks, sand and critters, what more do you need? After a mere 15 minutes Andrew delivered on his promise and showed us a beautiful seadragon. We would find a total of 7 that day! They really are amazing and stunningly beautiful animals. While they are related to seahorses and pipefishes, they are still very different. They are quite a bit larger and seem to be the result of a crazy drunk night between pipefishes, seahorses and some strands of kelp. Our presence did not seem to bother them at all, most of the ones we saw were happily pretending to be kelp and didn’t even stop feeding when we came in close for a good look.

Pygmy pipehorse

Find the critter, a Sydney Pygmy Pipehorse (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

We found some other members of the seahorse/pipefish family that day. Besides a Potbelly Seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis), Andrew also showed us some Sydney Pygmy Pipehorses (Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri). I was under the impression Pipehorses were a tropics only kind of family, but was happy to be proven wrong. This particular species is only found in the greater Sydney area, but is closely related to the ones I was observing in Dauin and Lembeh. They are at least as beautiful as their tropical cousins and in my opinion a lot braver for spending their days in the cold water. That cold water made Emma and me cut the second dive a bit short, diving in Sydney is all fun and games until someone gets hypothermia.

Pyjama Squid

The beautiful Pyjama Squid (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

Our second dive day started at Bare Island. I only went for a short dive, but saw 3 juvenile frogfish! What’s more, they were Painted Frogfish (Antennarius pictus), which I also (wrongfully) assumed to be found in the tropics only. It’s funny how after nearly two years of studying critters there is still a LOT I can learn about them. That evening Greg and me went for a night dive at Camp Cove to find a little guy I had been dying to see for years, the Pyjama Squid (Sepioloidea lineolata). The site is a pure muckdive: a calm bay, no structures to speak of, just sand with a smattering of seagrass and some bits and pieces of debris. Needless to say I had a great time in that kind of environment, as would any other diver who likes critters. We found nearly a dozen Pyjama Squid, the first one about 20 seconds after we put our heads down! They are the cutest little things and pretty much nothing is known about them, I might have to consider them for my next project 🙂  We also found a lot of other critters: Bobtail Squid, a juvenile Hairy Frogfish, Toadfish, Bottletail Squid,… Basically everything a muckdiver could want.

Conclusion: Sydney is a sweet place to dive, both for muck and other kinds of diving. But beware of the very real risk of hypothermia (as Emma can attest to), especially if you are doing long dives and not moving much. So bring your warmest wetsuit, tea/coffee for surface intervals and most importantly, don’t forget your camera!

 

Critters Research on Instagram!

It’s been a busy few weeks for me the last few week, which is why it has been quiet for a while on this blog. That will hopefully change in the near future, more critter posts coming up and a trip to Sydney to look for seadragons as well!

Weedy seadragon2

Coming up: looking for more of these guys! (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

InstagramLogoIf you are stuck for critter updates in the mean time, here’s the solution for you. Critters Research is now also active on Instagram. Mostly focused on nice pictures and short updates of what is happening at the moment. Check it out at “crittersresearch”  Instagram