Wet Nurse to a Dragon

Weedy Seadragon, Scuba Diver AustralasiaText and Photo: Tony White

"If we go into the ocean often enough, one day it will show you its true wonders."
Kangaroo Island is Australia's third largest satellite island at 330 km long, consisting of primarily farming communities with designated national parks over two-thirds of its land and sea. Situated off the coast of Southern Australia, about 40 km south of Adelaide, it is the home of leafy sea dragons, one of the world's most striking underwater creatures. Endemic to the more temperate waters of the Southern Ocean, this delicate fish continually draws divers and photographers back to gaze in awe at one of nature's underwater wonders.

The leafy sea dragon is one of two species of sea dragon to be found in southern Australian waters. The common, or weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) is less rare and is typically encountered more frequently in the same areas. The leafy sea dragon is an endangered species, in 1991 WA Fisheries in Western Australia declared it a 'totally protected species', and it became the official conservation symbol of southern Australian waters. Anyone who has marvelled at this delicate and colourful creature cannot fail to see the strong resemblance between the leafy sea dragon and those mythical fairy-tale dragons we read about as children. Sea dragons actually belong to the same family as seahorses (Sygnathidae), but differ in appearance because of the leaf-like appendages on their heads and bodies, and the tail that - unlike those of the seahorses - cannot be used as an anchor.

Delivering a baby

On the morning of 8 February 2002, a small group of divers sat expectantly in a small bay overshadowed by the rugged cliffs of this majestic island, onboard the Wind Cheetah, Kangaroo Island Dive Safaris' well-appointed catamaran, captained by Jim Thistleton. Jim is the acknowledged as the area's expert on these fascinating fish, and he has been tracking the local population over the last 10 years. During which time he had developed an almost preternatural insight into their behaviour: If Jim says there is a leafy under the boat, then that is exactly where you would find one!

On my arrival just the week before, I was overjoyed when Jim informed me that, due to the bad summer, some of the male leafies were still carrying eggs. It was an unexpected windfall, because pregnant males are typically only seen in the earlier months of the summer (November and December). With great faith I entered the water for the first dive of the trip in the hope of photographing these stunning creatures.

Within minutes I encountered an egg-carrying male at approximately 12m, and went about the usual routine of angles, flash settings etc, when Micky, the dive guide, came over to me and indicated to what I thought was a juvenile leafy that she had just found. I followed her to a position further up the reef wall and what I encountered sent life into slow motion. This experience was to be one of the most rare moments of my life, for lazily swimming along the reef was another male, this one too carrying eggs, one of which was beginning to hatch!

To record this unique event, Tony used Fuji Velvia film in a Nikon F90X camera with a 60 mm macro lens and a Sea and Sea housing, lighting was provided by a ring flash.Tony White is a full-time underwater photojournalist who leads small groups to Kangaroo Island every January (www.seaofdreams.co.uk)

This article was originally published in Scubadiver Australasia

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