Switgard Duesterloh.

Painting of a leafy sea dragon by Switgard Duesterloh.

I have recently taken up a new hobby. I had a collection of plain wooden stools, chairs and a small table, and had the idea to paint them each with the image of a sea creature. Around the legs of the stools I usually paint ranking seaweeds and the top is the canvas for whatever sea creature I have a mind to imagine there.

I am not that good an artist that I could paint anything just from memory, so I look for a picture of an animal in just the right pose and then try to replicate it in acrylic paint on the prepared background. Besides the first attempt of a jellyfish, which looks arguably a little funky, I now have a sea turtle, an Alaskan ronquil (which is a fish), and a chair with a king and dungeness crab. I made a nautilus for a friend, and a chair with a dragon for my son’s birthday. The latter gave me the idea for my latest project: a leafy sea dragon.

I had seen pictures of them before and once I even saw them live in the aquarium in Boston. Leafy sea dragons are probably right up there with the smooth lumpsucker for my favorite funky fish. Unfortunately, I would have to travel as far as the southern coasts of Australia to see them in their natural habitat.

Leafy sea dragons, or “leafies” as the divers call them, are related to sea horses and share the downward pointed long snout, the slow, riding movement and some other biological attributes with sea horses. In their family, however, are only two known species: the leafy and the weedy sea dragon. Leafies are rather large, so that the 12-inch painting I made is probably close to the real size of an adult.

What makes them so extraordinary is their appearance. Even at close range you might not see a leafy even when it stares right at you. They have the most amazing camouflage I have ever seen.

They are bright yellow or yellowish green, a color which exactly matches the seaweeds they hang out in. In addition, they have numerous long, leafy fins which seem to trail in the water like bridal veils. On their head they are adorned by a mixture of a colorful tassle and a miniature set of antlers, and their eyes are golden.

OK, by now you are probably thinking that I had too much to drink and am getting mixed up between the fantasy of dragons and the real world underwater. Don’t take my word for it, google the leafy sea dragon Phycodurus eques and find out for yourself how similar fantasy and sea life can be.

While you are at it, you might take a look at the Youtube video of an Australian diver visiting leafy sea dragons in their habitat. He has known, watched and named over 16 breeding pairs, some of which have been together for over eight years. Many seahorses stay close together with their mates and have numerous consecutive broods; it appears that the same is true for leafies.

As is true in sea horses, both the weedy and leafy sea dragon females give the eggs to the male to take care of. Sea horse males have a special pouch for the egg clutch, but in sea dragons the eggs are attached to the tail of the father. His movement in the gentle rolling of the shallow water mimics the waving of the seaweeds around him. This fish is not equipped for fast escapes and despite the deliberate beauty of all the adornments, their purpose is only to make him visually melt into his surroundings.

So in my latest art project I took the liberty of shooing the leafy sea dragon out of his seaweeds and painted him in the open of a blue-green sea. While the Kodiak spring day is gray and wet outside and I can only dream of the warm Australian coast far away, it gives me a little smile to sneak a peak at my leafy sea dragon.

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