The saga of the search for the elusive leafies Down Under
I can still remember the first time I saw a picture of a weedy sea dragon. Even in the age before Photoshop, it seemed way too colourful and far too much like a dragon to be anything other than a mock up. Give it a pair of wings and it'd be curling over a hillside breathing fire in some Welsh fairytale. Of course, the seahorse family is chock full of weird and wonderful variations and by the time I'd also seen a picture of a leafy sea dragon, I'd both accepted that they were real and that one day I was going to have to go and find them in the flesh.
To see them in the wild meant going to Australia and so many years later, finding that I had to go there on a job, I needed to work out how I was going to find them. Having never been to Australia, that meant digging deep into that wonderful, worldwide network of divers and there was something about going to look for dragons that, whether you want it or not, turns the whole thing into a quest. All sorts of people I'd never met started contacting me with offers of help - Scuba Squirrel offered to guide me to a place in Sydney Harbour where she'd seen weedies; Nat emailed me about a bay in Western Australia where leafies could be found - but most suggestions pointed to South Australia. Then one night, trawling through Google, I came across something called the Underwater Explorers Club of South Australia. I banged out a quick email asking if they knew anyone who might be interested in diving with me to find sea dragons and back came an immediate reply – 'G'day, my name's Bob, I'm president of the Underwater Explorers Club and I'll help you find weedies and leafies' - I knew then that I'd found my Gandalf!
Right, my guides Bob 'Gandalf' of the Underwater Explorer Club and 'Bilbo' Brendon, dive guide Kangeroo Island
By the time I flew into Adelaide a couple of months later, Bob was there at the airport to meet me. With typical Aussie hospitality, his spare room was set up for me to stay in and his trailer was loaded up with enough tanks and gear for us to go and spend five days diving likely sea dragon haunts. By next morning, we were on our way to the Yorke Peninsular, where Wool Bay Jetty stretched out into the sea. Built in 1882 to load wool onto ships, it was a haven for underwater life and a natural place to find sea dragons. The shallow water gave us a long dive and lots of time to look through the ribbon weed but, while I was introduced to Dusky Morwong, Old Wives and Magpie Perch, there wasn't a hint of a sea dragon.
Edithburgh jetty without sea dragons!
Our next destination was another old jetty called Edithburgh and the hunt was on again. Deeper than the last one, the pilings were extraordinarily colourful, and there was more fish life here – lots of cuttlefish, snook and stingrays, but no sea dragons that we could find. I began to suspect that perhaps, after all, they were mythical creatures, as their appearance so obviously suggested, and that the Aussies were just having me on.
Back on the jetty trail again next day and we headed for Rapid Bay. We had time for just one dive before we had to catch a ferry to Kangaroo Island. Rapid Bay Jetty was a long T-shaped wooden structure which was slowly falling apart. Bob and I dropped into the cool water and worked our way along the sea floor. We'd got all the way to the end and had just turned round, when I spotted a small but unmistakable shape. My first weedy sea dragon. What a wonderful and totally unfeasible little beast, happily drifting about, largely unbothered by me poking a lens in its face. With its bright colours and multicoloured dots and stripes, there was more than a hint of aboriginal art about its decoration. And it was unmistakably dragon. While there are dozens of animals called dragons, from Komodo lizards to dragonsnakes to dragonflies, this is the only one that actually looks like a dragon. It seems so unlikely that someone could have invented a mythical creature like a dragon, only for nature to come up with something so uncannily like our imaginings.
A wonderful and totally unfeasible little beast - the weedy sea dragon
There is a hint of aboriginal art about its decoration
With one dragon found and one to go, we crossed over to Kangaroo Island that afternoon with the wind starting to blow from the south, making the sea pretty choppy. The weather forecast wasn't looking good so we quickly dumped our gear and headed straight for Kingscote Jetty. With only a couple of days to find a leafy we decided to ignore the fact that the water was so churned up and give it a go. With barely a metre or two of visibility, we worked our way between the piles, hoping to spot a leafy sea dragon. We'd been told to head for a five-metre wide mooring buoy off the end of the pier that couldn't be missed. We missed it. We didn't even find the end of the pier. We lost each other, we lost our way, at points we even lost the pier and by the end of the dive we'd certainly lost all chance of finding a leafy that day.
Since quests seem to be all about finding guides, I went looking for one at the local dive shop next morning. If this was some sort of Lord of the Rings saga then there clearly had to be a Kiwi involved and he arrived in the shape of Brendon, the local dive master. He confirmed that there were leafies living around the pier and agreed to come with us. We clambered down a 20-foot stainless steel ladder towards the head of the jetty, intending to slowly work our way back down to exit at the shore. In fact, we dropped into total murk. You wouldn't have seen a sea dragon if it had been stapled to your mask. We had to abandon the dive on the spot – back up the ladder trying to get freezing hands to grip the shiny rungs with your tank pulling you backwards and the wind swinging you sideways. Somehow I'd imagined diving in Australia to be different from this, more sun perhaps and maybe a warm, turquoise, gin-clear sea.
Back at the dive shop and the forecast showed the wind getting worse during the rest of that day and the next. Twelve thousand miles to get here and my chance of seeing a leafy had just dropped to pretty well zero.
Next morning I woke up just before it got light to hear – nothing. No wind. A quick look into the greying dawn confirmed that, against the odds, the wind had died in the night. I managed to hold back until it was nearly light before waking the ever patient Bob. Soon we were back down at the jetty, staring at some pretty murky looking water. The wind had dropped but was forecast to start blowing again at any time. If we had a chance it had to be now. Brendon had been unwise enough to tell me where he lived and so, with my second totally selfish act of the day, I was soon banging on his door. At best it was going to be limited visibility and, unless we had a guide, we didn't have a chance of finding anything.
A more wondrous, unlikely and magical creature it would be hard to imagine - the leafy sea dragon
Brendon was generous enough to join us and soon we were clambering down that slippery ladder again. Once in the water it was quickly apparent that, while it was hardly clear, it was at least possible to see the hand in front of your face. Sticking close to Brendon we steered up to the head of the jetty and then set off into the gloom. Ten minutes of circling this way and that and staring into the dirty water when suddenly I felt a tug on my fin. Brendon turned me round and guided me towards a hollow and there she was, my first ever leafy sea dragon, and a more wondrous, unlikely and magical creature it would be hard to imagine. It drifted back and forth with the movement of the water, exactly as the weed around it was doing, and turned away from me in that shy way that all sea horses have when you look them in the eye. Around six inches long, its striped body was surrounded by weed-like appendages, and it looked for all the world like a miniature galleon under full sail. Yet if you took your eyes off it for a moment, it would melt in with the surrounding weed.
Like a miniature galleon under full sail
By the time I'd spent ten minutes fiddling around trying to get a shot of it, my new hero Bilbo Brendon Baggins was back and signalling for me to follow him. He led me unerringly through the murk to another dragon, only this one can't of been far short of a foot long, dwarfing the one we'd just seen. Unlike the rest of the family, sea dragons can't wrap their tail round things to anchor themselves. The only way they can influence where they're going is a couple of little transparent fins on either side of their neck and a small dorsal fin towards their tail. Apparently their top speed is around 1/8th of a mile an hour! Over the next half hour, as I became totally absorbed in watching the leafies, I repeatedly lost Brendon and Bob. Each time they appeared out of the murk and found me again until we all ended up at the bottom of that stainless steel ladder and hauled ourselves back up onto the jetty, quest finally completed.
As Tolkien said 'So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings' and by the time the afternoon ferry steamed out of Kangaroo Island Harbour it had on board one very happy pom, a twenty-five-year long ambition finally fulfilled.