Sydney's Marine Life

Sydney has recorded almost 600 species of fish; more than the United Kingdom or the whole of the Mediterranean Sea. Species, such as Green Sea Turtles, Little Penguins, Weedy Seadragons and Humpback Whales all grace our waters.

The Grey Nurse Shark

The Grey Nurse Shark (Carcharias taurus) is one of four species belonging to the family Odontaspididae. The species has a large, rather stout body and is coloured grey to grey-brown dorsally, with a paler off-white under belly. The body often has dark spots which can be used to identify individual animals. The species has similarly-sized first and second dorsal fins and an asymmetrical caudal fin. Grey nurse sharks grow to at least 3.6 metres in length.

The grey nurse shark is a slow but strong swimmer and is generally more active at night. Grey nurse sharks are often observed just above the sea bed in or near deep sandy-bottomed gutters or rocky caves, in the vicinity of inshore rocky reefs and islands. In Sydney, grey nurse sharks are a popular attraction for divers off the south head of Maroubra and near Long Reef. They are not considered dangerous as their diet comprises small marine animals such as fish, other small sharks, squids, crabs and lobsters.

Weedy Seadragon

Weedy seadragons are related to pipefish and seahorses. They are generally larger than seahorses and drift among the kelp rather than gripping it with their tail. Male seadragons carry their eggs fixed to the underside of the tail, unlike seahorses which have a pouch.

The Weedy Seadragon has a long pipe-like snout with a small mouth at the end. Females have a deeper body than males. The name 'Weedy Seadragon' refers to the seaweed-like appendages on the body. The species is the only member of the genus occurring in New South Wales, and cannot be confused with any other local member of the family Syngnathidae. Weedy seadragons are a real drawcard for local divers and marine enthusiasts, who often travel to sites just to see one of these charismatic, unique animals.

Eastern Blue Devil Fish

The Eastern Blue Devil is a beautiful, secretive fish. It has historically been collected for aquariums and is now protected under New South Wales Fisheries Law. The Eastern Blue Devil can be recognised by its banded pattern and yellow pectoral and caudal fins. The pelvic fins and posterior dorsal and anal fins are quite long. When spread these fins overlap so the fish appears larger to would-be predators.

Eastern Blue Devils live in caves and overhangs; they are rarely seen in the open. They can be found as shallow as 3 m, but are more often found in 15-30 m. When lit up by torchlight, they glow with iridescent blues and contrasting yellows. They are quite large, growing up to 40 cm in length.

Name  Scientific Name

Little Penguin

Little penguins are the smallest species of penguin, growing to an average height of 33 cm. Little penguins live in Australia and NZ; they are also known as fairy penguins. They live primarily on Australia’s offshore islands but can be found in mainland NSW as far north at Port Stephens.

An endangered population of little penguins lives at Manly, North Sydney Harbor. The population is protected under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and has been managed in accordance with a Recovery Plan since the year 2000. The population once numbered in the hundreds, but has decreased to around 60 pairs of birds. The decline is believed to be mainly due to loss of suitable habitat, attacks by foxes and dogs and disturbance at nesting sites.

Australian Fur Seal

Australian fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus), like all marine mammals in Australia, are a protected species. Decimated by hunting in the 19th century, they are making a slow recovery but still face a range of ongoing threats particularly entanglement in fishing gear, declining food supply and habitat loss.

Unlike whales and dolphins which spend their entire lives in water, seals must leave the water to breed so they need suitable haul-out sites. Montague Island is the largest fur seal colony in NSW with around 2000 seals. Australian fur seals are also found north of Montague Island in places like Jervis Bay and Wollongong. In Sydney, these animals can be spotted drifting in Botany Bay, coming ashore on Barrenjoey headland and even enjoying the view of our harbour from the Opera House steps!


Humpback Whale

The Humpback Whale is a large baleen whale that migrates annually along the east and west coasts of Australia. Migrating whales pass through Sydney's waters twice a year in winter going north and spring going south.

The Humpback Whale has distinctive knobbly protuberances on the head and long flippers making this one of the most easily recognised of the large baleen whales. Its name is derived from the hump under the dorsal fin, which is particularly noticeable when the whale arches its back to dive. This is one of the most studied of the great whales as individuals can be recognised by characteristic black and white patterns especially on the underside of the tail.

Bottlenose Dolphin

The Bottlenose Dolphin is found right around the coast of Australia and can sometimes be seen catching waves with surfers in Sydney.

The Bottlenose Dolphin has a short rounded snout, described as bottle-shaped, and a smooth rounded melon. The large dorsal fin is slightly hooked and set half way along the body. Overall the body colour is a series of grey tones with an indistinct paler grey wash on the flanks fading into an off-white belly.

Two forms of Bottlenose Dolphin are currently recognised - the 'inshore' form and the 'offshore' form, which could possibly be different species. The Bottlenose Dolphin is commonly seen in groups or pods, containing anything from two or three individuals to more than a thousand.

Giant Cuttle Fish

This species is the largest of all the cuttlefish and an expert at colour change and camouflage. They can change colour in an instant, and by raising parts of their skin, they can also change shape and texture to imitate rock, sand or seaweed. These displays have various interpretations to other marine creatures and may be used for camouflage, mating or even hypnotising prey.

Sepia apama can be identified by two rows of three skin flap-like papillae over each eye. Their cuttlebones can be identified by the lack of a spine and a rough V-shaped thickening (callus) at posterior end. The outer cone is wide and flared in the adult. They swim slowly by fluttering their side fins, but can move quickly backwards using a jet of water.

Green Sea Turtle

The green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) is a large sea turtle of the family Cheloniidae. It is the only species in the genus Chelonia and it lives throughout tropical and subtropical seas around the world. There are two distinct populations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The common name comes from the usually green fat found beneath its carapace.

This sea turtle's flattened body is covered by a large, teardrop-shaped carapace; it has a pair of large, paddle-like flippers. It is usually lightly coloured, although in the eastern Pacific populations parts of the carapace can be almost black. Unlike other members of its family, such as the hawksbill sea turtle, C. mydas is mostly herbivorous. The adults usually inhabit shallow lagoons, feeding mostly on various species of seagrasses. In Sydney, green turtles can be found at harbour sites like Quarantine Bay and Fairlight, and ocean bays such as Cabbage Tree Bay at Manly

Blue Grouper

Despite their name, they are not groupers, but wrasses. They live in shallow coastal waters and are regularily seen around exposed reefs. They can grow to 1.2 m in length.

Adults are found in a wide range of habitats from shallow waters, down to 40 m. Juveniles are usually found in estuarine seagrass beds.

The Eastern Blue Groper is listed as near Threatened. They are particularly susceptible to spearfishing and in the past was taken in large numbers by spearfishers. As a result of this, the species was given total protection status in New South Wales waters in 1969. In 1974, angling and commercial fishing were allowed again, but spearfishing was still prohibited.

Angler Fish

To win the world speed eating championship you need to eat big and eat fast – and no creature on earth can compete with the anglerfish. Female angler fish can eat a meal twice their size in one huge split-second gulp.

Prey are drawn in by the lure which angler fish have at the end of a short “fishing rod” on their heads. Anglerfish have an ’elastic’ mouth and body that allow them to swallow a fish much larger than themselves.

Sydney has several species of anglerfish, including the most common striate or striped angler, the painted angler and the rare Bare Island angler which lives no-where else in the world.

Red Indian Fish

The scientific name of the Red Indian Fish means “Phoenician god on the bow” referring to the images of gods on the bows of ancient sailing vessels.

The Red Indian Fish is an uncommon species with a compressed body and a long-based dorsal fin. Individuals are often scarlet, brick red, cream or orange. Occasionally they may be pale or have black and/or white spots, mainly on the upper half of the fish. The species lacks pelvic fins and has no scales.

Red Indian Fish are found hiding among sponges in places such as Bare Island and North Head, Sydney Harbour.


Name  Scientific Name

Moray Eel

Despite their fearsome appearance, morays are not considered dangerous to people unless provoked.

The family Muraenidae is one of the most abundant and widespread of all eel families. It contains an estimated 200 or more species in 15 genera. The genus Gymnothorax contains an estimated 120 species worldwide, with about 30 species in Australia. Around Sydney, there are 4 local species, the most common being the green moray G. prasinus

Morays can be found under jetties, in rocky reefs and estuaries around Australia. They hide during the day and come out at night to feed on small fish and invertebrates

Pineapple Fish

Pineapplefish can be found in caves and overhangs. They like to hide in the dark where they have an advantage as they can produce light from organs on the lower jaw. They use this light to hunt for small invertebrates such as shrimp.

The Pineapplefish is named for its pineapple-like appearance. It has robust scales with black margins. Pineapplefish can be found around Sydney in places such as Shiprock (Port Hacking) and Clifton Gardens.

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National Parks Association of NSW is a non-government conservation group that seeks to protect, connect and restore the integrity and diversity of natural systems in NSW and beyond, through national parks, marine sanctuaries and other means.