In search of the Leafy Sea Dragon

In search of the Leafy Sea Dragon

Without doubt, one of the most special things about South Australia is the incredible amount of life found close to shore on the numerous jetties around the coast. One of the main highlights of diving SA is going in search of the Leafy Sea Dragon. This charismatic species is found only in the temperate coastal waters of southern Australia and has become endangered due to habitat loss, pollution and collection for the aquarium trade. Leafy Sea Dragons are fully protected under local, state and federal law, seeing Leafies is a huge treat and well worth travelling for!

Luckily for us it was an easy journey to Adelaide where we met with the very friendly folks at Diving Adelaide who pointed us in the right direction to go looking for Leafies to capture – only on camera of course!

Sea Dragons belong to the same family as seahorses and pipefish and resemble both with their bony-plated bodies and elongated snouts, they are also some of the most ornately camouflaged fish in the world. Yellow-brown to green and adorned with Leafy appendages all over their bodies, Leafy Sea Dragons blend in perfectly with their natural habitat of seaweed. For divers this provides the fantastic challenge of spotting them, for those who are up for the hunt. Knowing where to start looking is the key and Diving Adelaide can help with dive maps and local info for many great sites within driving distance of Adelaide, They even provide a guided Leafy Sea Dragon Tour at Rapid Bay Jetty for anyone who wants some expert help spotting these incredible fish! Having rented some tanks and weights and with the expert guidance, my buddy and I headed for the Leafy hotspot of Rapid Bay Jetty with mounting excitement.

Rapid Bay Jetty

Dive level: Easy.
Depth: 12m
Type: Shore dive – Jetty, Photography, Night.
Vis: 10m
Marine Life: Invertebrates, schools of fish, rays, Leafy Sea Dragons.
Entry: Steps
Water temp: 18-21 degrees C (65-70F)
Facilities: Car park, toilets at nearby campground.

Getting There: Rapid Bay is about a 1hr30min drive from Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula and has public toilet facilities in the nearby beachside District Council of Yankalilla campground. The car park is a dirt lot by the new jetty, where you can get set up and observe the conditions for your dive plan. The parking area is long and narrow, so you may have a slightly longer walk if the car park is busy.

TOP TIPS: This is a rural area, so it’s best to get food and drink in one of the towns on the way. There is no air filling station, so come with enough tanks for the days diving and a spares kit is useful. The car park is dusty so a ground sheet is great for setting up equipment in the car park in order to keep equipment clean.

The Dive Site: Rapid Bay Jetty is a 450m pier, extending 360m north from shore, then angling to the right for a further 80m and ending in a 200m wharf that used to support ships coming to load up with crushed limestone from the quarry. The old pier is now in a state of disrepair and is closed to public access, but a new jetty has been built for pedestrians, fishermen and access for divers, 50m away from the original, running parallel for 240m.

The new pier has a dedicated entry point for divers at the end, with stairs down to an entry platform and ladder. The stairs have been designed with divers in mind, with nice shallow steps, so its easy to climb them after a dive. The Jetty is very popular, being a relatively shallow shore dive, protected from prevailing weather for most directions and host to a large variety of fish including the iconic Leafy Sea Dragon. The site is very highly regarded for underwater photography and night dives.

Maximum depth at the end of the old jetty is 12 m at high tide while an average depth at the end of the old jetty of 8m. The maximum depth at end of the new jetty is about 5-6m and you can surface swim or descend and swim west across to the old pier, which is best area for spotting Leafy Sea Dragons,.

The walk to the entry point is about 240m so some divers like to use a handcart to transport their gear to beside the entry point to kit up. Keep an eye on your air if you want to dive the ‘Tee’ where big schools of fish are known to gather, as the swimming distance is quite long. The old pier is covered in life and so dives can be on any section, depending on your air consumption and fitness.
If driving south after your dive, do be aware that the road exceeds 300m in altitude and must be taken into account when considering increased DCI risk after diving.

The Dive: My buddy and I managed to get a parking space not too far from the jetty and kitted up. The walk was not for the fainthearted, but the return dive route to the ‘Tee’ and right was absolutely fantastic! The conditions were good and aside from numerous fish and nudibranchs we got to see 2 Leafy Sea Dragons! We enjoyed it so much we went in for a second dive as soon as we’d had an acceptable surface interval, to revisit the second Leafy and get some more photos.

The Leafies were both bigger than we had imagined they would be, around 30cm or so, they blended beautifully with the surrounding seaweed both on the bottom and on the pilings and we were fortunate that the first one was spotted for us. They move so slowly and gracefully, it would be very easy to swim past without noticing them at all. However, once spotted, you can happily spend the majority of your dive in a relaxed hover, just observing them. An amazingly bizarre and beautiful fish!

We were very fortunate to be able to spend both dives with Leafy Sea Dragons and get some nice photos of our experience, we returned to the site again as well as enjoying several other fantastic jetty dives around Adelaide. The diving in SA is truly spectacular and very easy, suitable for all levels of divers. We saw something new and interesting on every dive and seeing the Leafy Sea Dragon was well worth taking the trip to Adelaide.

If you are in or visiting Australia and hadn’t planned on diving in South Australia already, make sure you go and see the Leafies for yourself! For more info on local dive sites or a guided Leafy Sea Dragon Tour, we recommend contacting Diving Adelaide, who were friendly, helpful and went above and beyond to make our trip the experience of a lifetime.

Check out the video of our dive: