Field Report: In the Company of Dragons


Spencer Gulf, South Australia
Photos by Howard and Michele Hall


Michele and I swim through murky water toward tiny explosions of light firing from a flashing strobe. Douglas Seifert is obviously photographing something interesting; almost certainly a dragon.

We approach slowly then settle on the bottom a few feet away and begin looking for the creature. I move next to Douglas only inches away and still I’m not seeing it. But then, after long moments, my eye finally differentiates golden blades of kelp from undulating appendages and the animal seems to materialize as if by magic. 

Fourteen inches long with bright red eyes, the leafy sea dragon moves gently, matching perfectly the rhythm of waving algal fronds. Now I can’t believe how long it took for me to spot it. It’s not a small animal and its eyes almost blaze crimson. Then I look away to signal Michele that I have found one. And when I looked back, it’s gone; vanished before my eyes, and I have to start looking all over again.

Along with the great white shark, the leafy sea dragon is one of the iconic marine creatures of South Australia.  The last time Michele and I dived these southern waters we found dragons at Wool Bay in the Gulf of St. Vincent. But the kelp forest where those creatures lived has vanished; destroyed by storms, poor water quality and global warming. 

This time we found the dragons 100 miles further west in the Spencer Gulf where kelp forests still cover the ocean floor. Jayne Jenkins, who scouted for dragons in preparation for our trip, says there are more than twenty at this spot in the small bay, but by the end of the day, we find only five or six.

Jayne worries that poachers may find this spot or have already. Sea dragons are worth thousands of dollars each to marine aquariums and no one has learned how to breed them in captivity. With such powerful economic rewards, poaching has been an increasing problem. For now, though, these dragons seem safe, living a peaceful life gliding invisibly within this undersea amber forest.

Our expedition will spend two days here at the Southern end of the Spencer Gulf, then we will steam north to the apex of the Gulf, hoping to arrive in time for the annual spawning of the giant cuttlefish – another of South Australia’s amazing marine creatures.

 

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