"It does not do to leave
a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
I'M ON THE PROWL OFF KANGAROO ISLAND, 70 miles southwest of Adelaide, Australia, for one of the world's most perfectly disguised creatures. Down Under is synonymous with fuzzy marsupials--koalas, kangaroos, wallabies. But I'm here in search of an exotic relative of the sea horse that looks more twiggy plant than animal and exists only in South Australian waters: the leafy sea dragon.
Driving through the island's interior, the early-autumn landscape ruddy and dry, I pass clusters of gum trees, their eucalyptus oils buoyed by the warm afternoon air. In Kingscote, a small seaside town, guide Jim Thiselton and I board his stern trawler. Ten minutes from the dock we cut the engine, strap on wetsuits, and sink below the surface.
The ocean floor quickly comes into focus: Passing sunlight electrifies clusters of rainbow-colored coral, and small forests of greenish brown seaweed undulate in the tide. Between barnacle-laden piers, a black-and-white magpie morwong flashes its distinctive prison stripes. Thiselton pries open a dead razor shell, and out pops a very rare and deadly blue-ringed octopus, angrily displaying its iridescent cobalt circles. But time ticks, and still no dragon. After 20 minutes of false spotting, I feel a gentle poke. Thiselton's gloved hand points left, and there, hovering over a dense patch of Posidonia sea grass, I see it.
With over a dozen appendages emanating from its ten-inch-long serpentine body, its head topped with what looks like a crown of leaves, the leafy sea dragon is one of the loveliest creatures in or out of the ocean. Its foliose limbs provide not mobility but its only defense: camouflage. The aquatic dragon navigates with the aid of miniature translucent fins near its head; only the small dorsal fins along its spine propel it forward. Gentle and slow moving, it sucks up mysids, or sea lice, with its long, elegant snout.
I fight to maintain buoyancy, hovering beside it like an alien spacecraft. With one yellow-orange eye fixated on me, the sea dragon appears indifferent. He's seen worse. As for me, I doubt I'll see anything quite so astonishing again. —Nicole Alper
Photo by Fred Bavendam/Minden Pictures; used with permission.