In Travel

How To Track Down David Attenborough’s Favourite Animal In The Wild

Since the very beginning of the medium, David Attenborough has been one of the most revered and trusted personalities on television. He’s introduced millions of viewers to the wonders of the natural world and got close to almost every living creature imaginable. So when he announces that he has a favourite animal, it’s worth paying attention.

At an acceptance speech for the 2017 Britain-Australia Society Award, he said that when children ask him what his favourite animal is – and they do, in their thousands – he answers that it’s the leafy seadragon, a bizarre seahorse-like creature with a tubular snout that is known to divers as a source of good luck.

A Hidden Gem

Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques) Photo: Jeff K/Flickr CC

Perhaps that reputation as a good omen has something to do with the difficulty involved in spotting these critters. The fearsome name hides the fact that leafy seadragons only grow to about 35cm, but it’s their superb camouflage rather than their size that makes them tough to find.

Ornate leaf-like appendages sprout from all over their bodies and when one moves through the water using near-invisible fins, it looks almost exactly like a piece of floating seaweed. If that’s not enough, they also have the ability to change colour to match their surroundings. Their body is naturally yellow while the leafy fronds are green, and this camouflage is so successful that they don’t need to raise their young – once they hatch, they’re left to survive on their own.

Chasing dragons

Leafy seadragon Photo: Jeff K/Flickr CC

The good news is that while they may be tough to spot, at least you don’t have to travel too far because they are endemic to the southern coast of Australia from Western Australia to Victoria. In fact, the leafy seadragon is the marine emblem of South Australia, which is also to best place to spot one.

You’ll need an eagle eye, and most likely a bit of guidance but it helps that they can be found close to shore in water as shallow as three metres. The first thing to know is that unlike many animals that rely on camouflage, they hide by moving rather than staying still – propelled by fins so thin they’re translucent, they swim slowly along like a piece of drifting seaweed. Leafy seadragons will often be found near patches of weed or rocky reefs, but fortunately they’re also fond of hanging around jetty pylons, which also happen to be the best places to spot them.

Pier to pier

Float on, friend Photo: WikiMedia

On the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide, a road branches off the highway to Rapid Bay. It follows the contours of the land over undulating hills with spectacular views across the ocean before eventually ending at a beach surrounded by imposing limestone cliffs where two jetties jut out into the water.

One jetty is slowly decaying, having been closed for years due to storm damage. The newer jetty, opened in 2009, has been colonised by sea life, but the old jetty is where most of the action is. There, large schools of fish, nudibranches, sea stars and visiting rays vie for divers’ attention with the resident “leafies”. As a bonus, there is also a small population of the leafy seadragon’s equally fascinating cousin, the weedy seadragon.

About 50 metres of open water separates the jetties, so confident swimmers can swim over and snorkel, but you’ll have a far better chance of spotting one with a scuba tank that lets you stay underwater for longer. If you don’t have your own gear, there are multiple operators offering dive tours departing from Adelaide, as well as shore dives that go from Rapid Bay.

The resident population stays at the jetty year round, and while Rapid Bay is a popular spot for families in summer when the campsite is usually full, it’s rarely crowded beneath the surface

Dirty Dancing

For a real treat, visit during the mating season, which begins in spring and runs from October through to January. While you’ll need to keep your distance to avoid interrupting the seadragons, this is also a good chance to spot the usually solitary creatures as they pair up.

Their elaborate courtship dance sees the potential mates swaying and pirouetting in tandem and ends with the male carrying around 250 light pink eggs on his tail for two months until they’re ready to hatch. Though spectacular, it’s important not to stress the animals, so extra caution is required when searching for these elusive and spectacular creatures.

Published 20 April, 2018