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SEARCHING FOR DRAGONS

Updated: Aug 9

Photographing the elusive Leafy Sea Dragon on Western Australia's south coast.


If you have ever looked for a needle in a hay stack of needles then you will be well trained to find a weedy sea dragon in a sea of sea weed. For this treasure hunt we were braving the icy cold waters of Esperance in search of this incredible animal.


Above: A male leafy sea dragon floats over a bed of weed.


Diving off of Australia's wild southern coast will reveal an ocean teaming with creatures. There are huge kelp forests, rays, sharks, seahorses and sea dragons just a few of the animals you're likely to meet. The GSR hosts some of the most healthy temperate and unique reef systems in the world. It covers 8,000km of coastline from Kalbarri in WA all the way to northern NSW.


“What makes the Great Southern Reef such a distinctive ecosystem is that not only is it incredibly biodiverse, but a high proportion of the species it hosts are found nowhere else on earth.” said Stefan Andrews, Ocean Imaging director and science communicator.


The GSR is also still very much unprotected from human impact as oil drilling and climate change are starting to threaten the area. The more people know about it, hopefully the better it will be protected.


We were on a road trip along the coast Western Australia with the aim to chase some of WA's most unique wildlife. Finding a leafy sea dragon had been a goal of mine since moving back to Australia after spending years in the tropics. A friend of mine lives in the beautiful town of Esperance on the south coast of Western Australia (about 8hrs south east of Perth), so we were due a visit. He had boasted to us of the incredible dives to be had along the coast on what is so rightly named 'The Great Southern Reef'. But knowing how cold it is there even in summer I was not 100% thrilled by the idea of it (yes I'm soft I know). Also we had definitely not packed accordingly for the cooler southern waters having only 5mm suits and no gloves or hoods.


Above: Our home on wheels driving to the dive site along the shore of Lucky Bay, Esperance.


First of all the coastline around Esperance and Cape Le Grand is beyond beautiful. The bluest of blue water and the whitest, softest sand you can imagine which is almost pure silica. We arrived for our visit and were quickly assured we couldn't leave before diving some of the best sites in the area. Once I learned that Leafy Sea Dragons can be found at Lucky bay I knew we were on. Having already looked for them near Bremer bay and failed I knew we could finally we could find this elusive creature!


So we packed our car with some dive tanks and our camera gear, luckily we could also borrow some warm hoods. My mate gave us a rundown on where to enter, surface swim and descend at the site and which depth to find the dragons. Without these pointers it would surely have been an impossible mission.


Above: Aerial view of the dive site at Lucky Bay.


Suiting up on the beach, I was already cold before getting in the water. This was in summer mind and it was definitely not feeling like summer, the cool wind off the water was very brisk. We parked our car on the western side of the bay where the dive site started. A few sets of star jumps to warm up, we strapped on our tanks, cameras ready. Walking about 100m further down the beach to the rocks and then surfacing swimming out approx. 200m to the start of the wall slope. The water temp was a balmy 16-17C which is freezing for us in our paper thin 5mm suits. I was dearly missing my 7mm semi dry wetsuit I left in Melbourne.


Above: Temperate corals and fish on the reef at Lucky Bay.


We had been instructed to search the rocky wall which was carpeted in kelp and other sea weed from about 5m to 15m depth, as thats where we were told to look for them. Descending down, feeling the cold water creep into my wetsuit and my bones we started the search. Almost instantly we were surrounded by so many fish and other critters, it was a wonderland of life. It was so surprising to also see temperate corals growing in these cold waters. The water visibility was very clear about 15m and there was no current just a slight bit of swell pushing us back and forth, so far quite an easy dive.


Above: Ollie posing next to a weedy sea dragon.


A few minutes in we easily spotted a weedy sea dragon which is a close relation to the leafy sea dragon, but not what we were here for. These I had seen many times diving near Melbourne so we took a quick photo and moved on. Knowing our time on the site was limited to how long we could bare the cold for. Searching and searching the weed, almost giving up, hands near frozen to my camera tray. Suddenly a leafy sea dragon drifted out from its sea weedy home right before my eyes, it was so much bigger than I expected (about 35cm in length)! Terrified I'd lose it if I looked away I began yelling into my regulator to get Ollie's attention. We stayed with it for ages photographing all the angles until we knew were were possibly near hypothermic. It was time to head back and warm up. But I was buzzing that we had found one let alone managed to get some decent shots.


Above: The needle in the haystack was found! A leafy sea dragon.


It was amazing how obvious they were amongst the weed once you had set eyes on one. As we made the swim back towards the beach through the shallows you would not believe we then both spotted a few more of them. We must have swum over so many as we searched at the beginning.


We ended up diving the site one more time the following day and managed to gather a few more photos and we even found a big male sea dragon who was cruising around with his tail laden with eggs almost ready to hatch (see photo at top of blog).


Above: Some of the leafy sea dragons we managed to find. You can see just how well they blend in looking at the centre photo here.

Above: Ollie hiding behind a school of old wives.


If you're visiting Esperance and have the time to do it, I highly recommend diving the western side of Lucky Bay to look for these beautiful animals. You wont be disappointed! Ps. bring a 7mm wetsuit.


We did also use a shark shield as great whites do frequent the area, but we never saw one (maybe one saw me?).


Brooke x


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