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. 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.


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


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


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 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


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 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 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


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


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


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

Commercial Fish of South Africa

The commercial fish of South Africa are fair and few, with an extensive but demanding fish industry that totals 150 million kilograms of fish caught annually. The South African fishing industry relies...more

Crustaceans of South Africa

The crustaceans of South Africa are not only an interesting part of the country's marine life. The West Coast of South Africa is a well-known breeding spot for crustaceans....more


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 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


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

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


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


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


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 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 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

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


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


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


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


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 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

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 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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


Parrotfish are characterised by their large, merged teeth which give them the appearance of a parrot. This is a big fish, its body narrowing towards the sickle-shaped tail....more


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


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 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


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


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

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


Sawfish are a part of the Pristidae family which comprises of one genus and four species. Their teeth are the same size and they do not have barbels like the sawshark....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 Clams

Sea clams belong to the Bivalvia class which comprises of more than 30 000 species, including clams, scallops, oyster and mussels....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 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


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


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

Sharks of South Africa

The sharks of South Africa are interesting creatures part of the marine life found all along the coastline of Mzansi. A variety of small and large, famous and more unknown sharks patrol...more


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


Skates belong to the Rajidae family which comprises of 18 genera and 200 species. Their eyes are located at the top of their heads and have spiracles behind them....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


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 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


Soldierfish have flat, oval-shaped bodies and deeply forked tails. Their scales are two-toned in colour and have a rough appearance. They are usually red in colour with lighter and darker areas....more


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


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


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


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 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 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


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


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


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 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

Venomous Marine Life

The venomous marine life of South Africa are found all along the coastline of the country, and although some pose little threat to humans, there are a few to know about before you go on an oceanic adventure...more


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