Marine Life of South Africa

© Jean Tresfon
South Africa boasts exceptionally rich marine life. The country has a huge diversity of marine ecosystems and a variety of species, which represents an enormously valuable South African resource. The West Coast is home to Atlantic ocean dwellers such as the African penguin and the cape fur seal. On the warmer East Coast, you’ll find dolphins and the Southern Right Whales thriving in the Indian Ocean.

SouthAfrica.co.za provides voluminous information on all South African marine life and species, available in the country’s 11 official languages. Learning about South African marine life emphasises the importance of marine biodiversity and protecting precious resources.

Anemones

Anemones belong to the Actiniaria order which consists of 44 families and more than 1000 species. Some anemone species live in tubes or burrow into the sand....more

Angelfish

Angelfish belong to the Pomacanthidae family which comprises of seven genera and about 86 species. Some remain unaccompanied whereas others live in pairs or harems....more

Barracuda

Barracudas belong to the sphyraenidae family which comprises of one genus and 18 species. These opportunistic predators can be found 100 m deep in the ocean, hunting at bursts of speed of 45 km/h....more

Batfish

The batfish belongs to the Ephippidae family which comprises of seven genera and 20 species, including spadefish. They can normally be found in groups over reefs or close to wrecks in midwater....more

Billfish

Billfish are a part of the Istiophoridae family which comprises of three genera and 11 species. They are differentiated from the swordfish which have a flattened bill, and no pelvic fins or jaw teeth....more

Bluebottles

Bluebottles belong to the Physaliidae family which is a part of the Siphonophora order. It comprises of four distinct individuals – the float, tentacles, organs and sexual organs....more

Boxfish

Boxfish belong to the Ostraciidae family which comprises of 14 genera and 37 species. One genus, named Lactophyrus, secretes venom from its skin....more

Brittle Stars

Brittle stars are a part of the Ophiuroidea class which falls under the Echinodermata phylum. This phylum includes the feather star and sea star, sea urchins and sea cucumbers....more

Butterflyfish

Butterflyfish belong to the Chaetodontidae family which comprises of ten genera and 114 species. They feed diurnally and travel far from their home range in search for food....more

Cardinalfish

Cardinalfish belong to the Apogonidae family which comprises of 22 genera and 207 species. They can be spotted in crevices or caves on the reef in pairs or small schools, and mostly feed nocturnally....more

Cat Shark

Catsharks belong to the Scyliorhinidae family which comprises of 15 genera and 105 species, making them the largest shark family....more

Catfish

Catfish have long bodies that are at times shaped similarly to that of an eel, and their tailfins are forked. They have two to three pairs of barbels around the mouth....more

Cavebass

Dinopercidae family consist of 2 genera and 2 species. Found under ledges or at entrances to caves. Makes a drumming noise. Nocturnal. Pelagic spawners....more

Cleaner Shrimp

Alpheoidea super family consists of 22 genera and 129 species. This super family includes all shrimps....more

Clownfish

Clownfish are rounded, fat body with large fins. They can be aggressive. Colouration differs from yellow, orange, red or black with white vertical patches or bars over the body....more

Coelacanth

The coelacanth belongs to the Latimeriidae, which comprises of one genus and two species. These fish are ovoviviparous nocturnal hunters, and hard to spot as they live in deep waters...more

Crabs

Brachyura infra-order is a group of crabs that have no visible tail. Falls under the suborder Pleocyemata (includes crabs, lobsters, crayfish and others)....more

Crayfish

The nephropidae family consists of 11 genera and 24 species. Found on rocky or sandy areas, from reefs to the continental shelf. Lobsters moult in order to grow....more

Cuttlefish

Sepiida order falls under the class Cephalopoda which includes octopus, squid and nautilus. Often confused with squids (which don’t have the ‘W’ pupil and are smaller)....more

Damselfish

Pomacentridae family consists of 28 genera and 321 species. Abundant over reefs. Hide in coral or crevices when danger approaches. Some species are very territorial....more

Devil Ray

Myliobatidae family consists of 7 genera and 42 species. Smaller than the Manta ray. Mouth position also different. Can form large schools. Also seen to breach....more

Dolphins

Dolphins have smooth, streamlined bodies, big foreheads that protrudes over the beak, or rostrum and a blowhole at the top of the head. Most dolphins have curved dorsal fins....more

Dottybacks

Pseudochromidae family consists of 16 genera and 98 species. Found in crevices and coral rubble near reefs. Very territorial. Hermaphrodites (can adopt male and female sexual organs)....more

Eagle Ray

Myliobatidae family consists of 7 genera and 42 species. Very fast swimmers. Tail is longer than the body. Some of the Eagle rays have a snout, like the Eagle and Bull rays....more

Electric Ray

The electric ray belongs to the Torpedinidae family which comprises of two genera and 14 species. Their electric organ is formed of electro-plaques which stores electricity in tissues, similar to the workings of a battery....more

Filefish

Filefish belong to the Monacanthidae family which comprises of 31 genera and 95 species. They usually occur in pairs and can be found near reefs, in cracks or lagoons....more

Flagtails

Flagtails are a part of the Kuhliidae family which comprises of one genus and eight species. They occur in schools, and juveniles form their own small groups which can sometimes be seen in rock pools....more

Flatheads

Flatheads belong to the Platycephalidae family which comprises of 18 genera and 60 species. Their bodies are round when swimming....more

Flatworms

Flatworms belong to the Pseudocerotidae family which includes parasitic tapeworms and flukes. They use their smooth bodies for oxygen exchange....more

Flounders

Flounders belong to the Bothidae family which comprises of 13 genera and 116 species. They are born with an eye located on either side of the head, but the right eye moves to the left once the fish has settled on the...more

Flutemouth

The flutemouth belongs to the Fistulariidae family which comprises of one genus and four species. These fish can change in colour to camouflage and ward off predators....more

Frogfish

Frogfish belong to the Antennariidae family which comprises of 12 genera and 41 species. The name ‘anglerfish’ derives from their manner of catching prey, which they lure with a fleshy growth on their heads....more

Fusiliers

Fusiliers belong to the Caesionidae family which comprises of four genera and 20 species. They are closely related to snappers but are different in having adapted to feeding on plankton by using their protrusible jaws....more

Galjoen

The body of the galjoen is somewhat square-shaped. It head is big with tiny mouth and incisor-like teeth, and its tail shortened. Its fins have prominent spines....more

Garden Eels

Garden Eels are a part of the Heterocongridae family which comprises of two genera and 33 species. Their names derive from their manner of protruding their upper bodies from the sand like plants....more

Goatfish

Mullidae family consists of 6 genera and 55 species. Bottom feeders. Use the barbels to find food in the sand (chemosensory). Also used to attract females during courtship....more

Gobies

Gobiidae family consists of more than 210 genera and more than 1 800 species. The largest family of marine fish. Some of the genera have fused pelvic fins, which are used to hold fast to the coral....more

Goldie Rockod

Goldie rockcods look like freshwater goldfish, yet they are more prominent in colour varying from pink to orange, yellow and blue. Males are more colourful than females, and their tails are large and crescent-shaped....more

Great White Shark

The great white shark belongs to the Lamnidae family which comprises of three genera and five species. It is the only surviving species of the Carcharodon genus as the Megalodon is extinct....more

Grey Nurse Shark

Odontaspididae family consists of 2 genera and 4 species. Listed as vulnerable. The only shark known to gulp air and store it in the stomach to maintain neutral buoyancy. Migratory species....more

Groupers

Groupers belong to the Epinephelinae sub-family which comprises of 31 genera and 99 species. They are big fish, the largest recorded having a mass of 179kg....more

Grunts

Grunts have large heads and torsos which narrow towards a short tail. They are characterised by their big lips. They vary in colour from a silverfish-grey to yellow with blue lines....more

Guitarfish

Guitarfish belong to the Rhinobatidae family which comprises of seven genera and 45 species. Their moth, nostrils and gills are centrally located, and their eyes and spiracles are on top....more

Gurnards

Gurnards belong to the Triglidae family which comprises of 14 genera and 100 species. They are bottom-dwelling creatures that use their pectoral rays to detect food....more

Hammerhead Sharks

Hammerheads are characterised by the shape of their head, which is flattened laterally. Its eyes and nostrils are located at the ends of the hammer, which is called the cephalofoil....more

Hard Corals

Hard corals are a part of the Scleractinia order which falls under the Hexacorallia subclass. This class includes anemones, zoanthids and black corals....more

Hawkfish

Hawkfish belong to the Cirrhitidae family which comprises of nine genera and 32 species. They perch upright on the reefs using their pectoral fins, which can hold them steady in a strong surge of water....more

Hermit Crab

Hermit crabs have five pairs of legs, the first pair normally being claws. It has a soft abdomen into which its entire body can retract. Some camouflage their shells by using sponges or anemones....more

Horsefish

Horsefish form a part of the Congiopodidae family which comprises of four genera and nine species, and falls under the order of the Scorpaeniformes, or scorpionfish....more

Jellyfish

Hydrozoa class in the phylum Cnidaria consists of approximately 1 750 species. Closely related to corals and anemones. They swim by contracting muscles and jetting water from the bell....more

Kingfish

Kingfish are a part of the Carangidae family which comprises of 33 genera and 140 species. They can be found in big schools and travel great distances....more

Klipfish

Clinidae family consists of 20 genera and 73 species. They have whisker-like structures (cirri) on different parts of their heads. Scales not visible....more

Knifejaw

Oplegnathidae family consists of 1 genus and 6 species. Small scales all over the body. Shy species found under ledges during the day. Hunts at night for food....more

Kobs

Sciaenidae family consists of 70 genera and 270 species. Make a repetitive croaking or drumming sound with their swimming bladders. Juveniles have a large first dorsal fin....more

Leaf Scorpionfish

Leaf Scorpionfish have flattened bodies and tiny heads. Their dorsal fins are in the shape of a sail, running continuously from above the eyes and connecting with the caudal fin....more

Lizardfish

Synodontidae family consists of 5 genera and 55 species. Found perching on the bottom, looking like lizards. Prefer sandy bottoms. Sometimes hide under the sand to ambush prey....more

Longfins

Plesiopidae family consists of 11 genera and 38 species. Hides in caverns or under ledges during the day. Some have a ‘false eye’ on the back of the dorsal fin to confuse prey....more

Manta Ray

Myliobatidae family consists of 7 genera and 42 species. There are two Manta species. A smaller one found on reefs and a larger one which is migratory (M. birostris). Threatened species....more

Mantis Shrimp

Stomatopoda order consists of 19 families and 120 genera. Hides in burrows. Hunts prey by spearing or smashing their shells....more

Marine Mammals of South Africa

South Africa is one of the most incredible destinations worldwide for watching marine mammals. The waters surrounding Southern Africa boast 40...more

Moorish Idols

Zanclidae family consists of 1 genus and a single species. Sometimes confused with the schooling Coachman. Found close to coral reefs. The sickle-like dorsal fin shortens with age....more

Moray Eels

Muraenidae family consists of 15 genera and 200 species. Usually found in rock crevices or under ledges. Hunts mostly at night. Possessing a very good sense of smell....more

Mullets

Mugilidae family consists of 17 genera and 72 species. Large schools are found in shallow water just behind the breakers. Juveniles up to 2cm hide in estuaries....more

Needlefish

Belonidae family consists of 10 genera and 34 species. Found near the surface in the ocean. Colouration gives very good camouflage. Can leap from the water when frightened....more

Nudibranch - Aeolid

Nudibranchs are a part of the Aeolidina suborder, which falls under Opisthobranchia. Nudibranchs, meaning ‘naked gills’. They can move rather fast....more

Nudibranch - Dorid

The typical dorid nudibranch is a part of the doridina suborder, which falls under Opisthobranchia. Its gills surround the anus and can be different in colour to the mantle....more

Octopus

The octopus belongs to the octopoda order which falls under the cephalopoda class. This class includes cuttlefish, nautilus and squid. Interestingly, most octopuses have three hearts....more

Pineapplefish

Pineapplefish belong to the Monocentridae family which comprises of two genera and four species. On either side of its lower jaw, a bioluminescent organ named a photophore is located....more

Pipefish

Pipefishes belong to the Syngnathinae sub-family which comprises of 23 genera and 120 species. They use their dorsal fins to propel themselves forward, and a sucking movement to catch their prey....more

Porcupinefish

Porcupinefish belong to the Diodontidae family which comprises of six genera and 19 species. Their spines can be erected when they are threatened, or it remains erected permanently...more

Prawns

Dendrobranchiata sub order consists of 7 families and 26 genera. Shrimps are also part of this sub order. The name means ‘tree gills’. Nocturnal feeders....more

Pufferfish

Pufferfish belong to the Tetraodontidae family which comprises of 19 genera and 121 species. They use their pectoral fins to propel themselves forward but are very slow swimmers....more

Rabbitfish

Rabbitfish belong to the Siganidae family which comprises of two genera and 27 species. They can be found over reefs in shallow water, living in pairs or in schools....more

Red Lionfish

Red Lionfish belong to the Pterois genus which comprises of nine species. They are well camouflaged, docile creatures that are not easily scared off by divers....more

Remoras

Remoras belong to the Echeneidae family which comprises of four genera and eight species. The creatures use their suckers to attach themselves to sharks, turtles, rays, bony fish, whales and dolphins...more

Requiem Sharks

Requiem sharks belong to the Carcharhinidae family which comprises of 12 genera and 50 species. They have five-gill slits and their teeth are blade-like with a cusp....more

Ribbon Eels

Ribbon eels belong to the Muraenidae family which comprises of 15 genera and 200 species. They are distinguished by their nostril located at the front of the head, breathing with an open mouth....more

Scorpionfish

Scorpionfish belong to the Scorpaenopsis family which comprises of 26 species. They occur on coral reefs, lying very still and camouflaging with its colours....more

Sea Breams

Sea breams belong to the Sparidae family which comprises of 35 genera and 112 species. They can be found in various habitats including bays, brackish estuaries...more

Sea Chubs

Sea Chubs belong to the Kyphosidae family which comprises of 15 genera and 42 species. They can be found over outer reefs and hard bottom areas, and are inquisitive and active....more

Sea Cucumber

Sea cucumbers belong to the Holothuroidea family which falls under the Echinodermata phylum class. This includes sea urchins and all the starfish – sea, feather and brittle....more

Sea Fans

Sea fans belong to the Gorgonacea order, which is one of the four orders of Octocorralia. This includes sea pens, soft corals and sea whips. Their skeletons differ in their horn-like appearance....more

Sea Spiders

Sea spiders are a part of the Pantopoda order which includes more than 1400 species. Because their bodies are so tiny, their organs are also located in their legs....more

Sea Urchin

Sea urchins are a part of the Echinoidea class which falls under the Echinodermata phylum, which includes sea cucumbers and all the stars – sea, feather and brittle....more

Sea Weeds

Seaweeds are a part of the Chromalveolata kingdom which includes brown, green and red algae. Chlorophyta, or green algae, have three body forms...more

Seahorse

Seahorses belong to the Hippocampinae family which includes the pipefish. Seahorses change in colour allowing them to camouflaged well, the change in colour...more

Seamoth

Seamoths belong to the Pegasidae family which comprises of two genera and five species. They move in a walking motion on their pelvic fins, spreading their pectorals wide....more

Shrimpfish

The body of the shrimpfish is elongated, very compressed and covered in bony plates. The first spine of the dorsal fin is at the rear of the body and is long and sharp....more

Slipper Lobster

The Scyllaridae family consists of 8 genera and 71 species. The slipper lobster is closely related to spiny and coral lobsters. They are very wary creatures, protecting themselves by burrowing into the sand....more

Snappers

Lutjanidae family consists of 1 7 genera and 107 species. Snappers, in their large schools, are found over reefs. Due to snappers hunting mostly at night, they have large eyes in most species....more

Soapfish

Soapfish belong to the Grammistidae sub-family, which consists of seven genera and 28 species, and is family of groupers. They hide in overhangs and most of the soapfish species hunt at nighttime, often with larger fish....more

Soft Corals

The shapes of soft corals differ, but most have stems which branch to form smaller stems with polyps, which are apparent if not contacted. Soft corals vary in colour from brown to green, orange, yellow, blue and red....more

Soles

Soles have flattened bodies that are leaf-like in shape. Up to the tail fins, their bodies are surrounded by the dorsal, anal and pectoral fins. They are well camouflaged with brown, black, yellow and blue lines and blotches....more

Sponges

Sponges belong to the Porifera phylum which comprises of more than 15 000 species. They consist of collagen, lime, silica spicule or sponge which maintain the shape of the sponge....more

Squirrelfish

Myripristinae sub-family consists of 8 genera and 84 species. They are part of the soldierfish family. Found over reefs during the day or hiding in crevices and under ledges....more

Starfish

Asteroidea class falls under the Echinodermata phylum, which includes all the Feather and Brittlestars, Sea cucumbers and Sea urchins. Slow moving, bottom-dwelling animals....more

Stingrays

Named after the stinger on their tails. Flat, disk-shaped body with triangular wings. Head not distinguishable from body. Wider than it is long. Long tail....more

Stonefish

Stonefish belong to the Synanceiidae sub-family which comprises of eight genera and 36 species. The name ‘stonefish’ derives from its appearance....more

Sunfish

Molidae family consists of 3 genera and 5 species. Heaviest bonefish in the world, weighing up to 1 000 kg. Use dorsal and anal fins for locomotion. Squirts water through gills to turn sideways....more

Surgeonfish

Acanthurus genus consists of 38 species. Found on all coral reefs, grazing alone or in schools. Use the sharp spines for defence and can be poisonous....more

Sweepers

Sweepers belong to the Pempheridae family which consists of two genera and 26 species. During the day they can be found taking shelter in caves or under ledges, and they hunt at night-time....more

Tang Surgeonfish

Zebrasoma genus consists of 7 species. From the family of Surgeonfish. Found over coral reefs in pairs or small groups. Will use spine as protection when in danger – cut can be venomous....more

Threadfin Bream

The bodies of threadfin breams are long and oval-shaped. They are covered in large scales and have small mouths. Certain species have a spine located below their eyes....more

Tilefish

Tilefish have cigar-shaped bodies which narrow towards the end, and small, round heads. Their tail fins are shortened and forked in certain species, their dorsal fin is continuous and their anal fin has two spines....more

Toadfish

Toadfish belong to the Batrachoididae family which comprises of 23 genera and 80 species. Their name derives from their toad-like appearance....more

Triggerfish

Triggerfish have oval-shaped bodies that narrow towards the tail and sharp heads. Their tails are crescent-shaped, and their frontal dorsal fins have two sharp spines which fold into a sheath....more

Trumpetfish

Aulostomidae family consists of 1 genus and 3 species. Sometimes confused with Cornetfish, which is smaller and silver. Seen hunting on reefs in a head lowered position....more

Tuna

Tuna belongs to the Scombridae family which comprises of 15 genera and 51 species. They can be found in large schools at times. Tuna are able to keep their body temperature...more

Turtles

The Chelonioidea superfamily consists of 5 families of which 3 are extinct. All turtles breathe air and are powerful swimmers. Turtles can rest or sleep underwater for several hours....more

Unicornfish

Unicornfish have long, oval-shaped bodies. Their name derives from the horn located at the front of their heads. Like other surgeonfish, they have sharp spines on their tail bases or caudal peduncles....more

Whale Shark

The whale shark belongs to the Rhincodontidae family which comprises of one genus and one species. Whale sharks are the largest living fish in the sea and can have a mass of up to 13 tons....more

Wrasse

Wrasses have elongated flat bodies. Their dorsal fin is continuous and their tails are predominantly rounded, but also shortened, forked and crescent-shaped....more