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.

South Africa Online ® 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 ...more


Barracudas belong to the sphyraenidae family which comprises of one genus and 18 species. These opportunistic predators can be found 100 m d...more


The batfish belongs to the Ephippidae family which comprises of seven genera and 20 species, including spadefish. They can normally be found...more


Billfish are a part of the Istiophoridae family which comprises of three genera and 11 species. They are differentiated from the swordfish w...more


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


Butterflyfish belong to the Chaetodontidae family which comprises of ten genera and 114 species. They feed diurnally and travel far from the...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 r...more


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


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


The coelacanth belongs to the Latimeriidae, which comprises of one genus and two species. These fish are ovoviviparous nocturnal hunters, an...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 fi...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-know...more


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


Pseudochromidae family consists of 16 genera and 98 species. Found in crevices and coral rubble near reefs. Very territorial. Hermaphrodites...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-...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 r...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...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 exchan...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 th...more


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


Frogfish belong to the Antennariidae family which comprises of 12 genera and 41 species. The name ‘anglerfish’ derives from their manner...more


Fusiliers belong to the Caesionidae family which comprises of four genera and 20 species. They are closely related to snappers but are diffe...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 p...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 a...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 fus...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


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


Guitarfish belong to the Rhinobatidae family which comprises of seven genera and 45 species. Their moth, nostrils and gills are centrally lo...more


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

Hard Corals

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


Hawkfish belong to the Cirrhitidae family which comprises of nine genera and 32 species. They perch upright on the reefs using their pectora...more


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


Sciaenidae family consists of 70 genera and 270 species. Make a repetitive croaking or drumming sound with their swimming bladders. Juvenile...more


Synodontidae family consists of 5 genera and 55 species. Found perching on the bottom, looking like lizards. Prefer sandy bottoms. Sometimes...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...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...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 ...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 s...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...more


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


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

Nudibranch - Aeolid

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


Pineapplefish belong to the Monocentridae family which comprises of two genera and four species. On either side of its lower jaw, a biolumin...more


Pipefishes belong to the Syngnathinae sub-family which comprises of 23 genera and 120 species. They use their dorsal fins to propel themselv...more


Porcupinefish belong to the Diodontidae family which comprises of six genera and 19 species. Their spines can be erected when they are threa...more


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


Remoras belong to the Echeneidae family which comprises of four genera and eight species. The creatures use their suckers to attach themselv...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...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...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,...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 ar...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....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...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 fo...more


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


Lutjanidae family consists of 1 7 genera and 107 species. Snappers, in their large schools, are found over reefs. Due to snappers hunting mo...more


Soapfish belong to the Grammistidae sub-family, which consists of seven genera and 28 species, and is family of groupers. They hide in overh...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. S...more


Soldierfish have flat, oval-shaped bodies and deeply forked tails. Their scales are two-toned in colour and have a rough appearance. They ar...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 f...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 hi...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 loc...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 ...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 ca...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 pr...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 spin...more


Tilefish have cigar-shaped bodies which narrow towards the end, and small, round heads. Their tail fins are shortened and forked in certain ...more


Triggerfish have oval-shaped bodies that narrow towards the tail and sharp heads. Their tails are crescent-shaped, and their frontal dorsal ...more


Aulostomidae family consists of 1 genus and 3 species. Sometimes confused with Cornetfish, which is smaller and silver. Seen hunting on reef...more


The Chelonioidea superfamily consists of 5 families of which 3 are extinct. All turtles breathe air and are powerful swimmers. Turtles can r...more


Unicornfish have long, oval-shaped bodies. Their name derives from the horn located at the front of their heads. Like other surgeonfish, the...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, t...more


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