Fintastic fathers

Sheree Marris | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 4
Emperor penguin dads nurture their young while mum heads out to sea for a feed.
If you’ve ever thought being a father had its tough moments, spare a thought for some of nature’s finned and feathered dads …

It’s that time of the year again, when the socks, jocks and bad ties come out in force around the world in celebration of Father’s Day. Us human folk are lucky that our dads are some of the most dedicated in the world. They’re there when we’re born, watch us grow and are relentless in their support.

But believe it or not, this level of dedication and care is pretty rare in the animal kingdom, where there aren’t many male role models when it comes to parenting. Most are dead-beat dads; they do the deed and then leave, never, ever meeting their kids.

There are, however, some exceptions to this rule and the most spectacular are found in the sea. They’re an inspirational group of guys whose commitment to their kids can’t be questioned. Some take parenting to an entirely new level, others challenge stereotypes, while some throw the rules for reproduction out the window.

So as a tribute to our hardworking dads, we thought we’d use this opportunity to celebrate some of the unsung fathers of the sea.


Despite the fanciful messages in Finding Nemo, the partnership between mum and dad anemone fish wasn’t all happy families, and while it was sad that a barracuda ate mum, in reality it was a blessing, as you’ll discover.

You see, when it comes to nurturing their young, dad carries out 90 per cent of the caring. Once the eggs are laid this comical looking clown spends pretty much every waking minute (yes, fish do sleep) swimming around cleaning the eggs, aerating them and keeping them safe from potential predators until they hatch.

This level of dedication may also be a part of this dad’s strategy to keep the female at fin’s length and give his young the best chance of survival. The reason? These mums have been known to eat their young, especially if they hang around after they’ve hatched. So while we think this dad is a winner, don’t expect to see mum on any Mother’s Day roll honours.


Meet the male cardinalfish, a caring kind of bloke that eats up fatherhood – literally. After the female has laid her gooey ball of eggs, the male dutifully fertilises them and … promptly puts them is his mouth, which becomes an incubator for the unborn. His cheeks bulge out like a chipmunk’s and he spends around 20 days juggling the eggs around in his gob.

You’d imagine that this dad would be pleased to see his kids, then leave once they’ve hatched as he can’t eat the entire time, but this dedicated dad lets them swim in and out of the safety of his mouth until they’re fully developed. He’s the ultimate babysitter, while the female patrols the waters chasing away any fish that come near him.


The emperor penguin has a lot going for him – he’s a sharp-looking guy in a suit, but there’s more to this feathered father than just appearance. He’ll go to extremes to look after his chick, even if it means toughing it out in minus 35 degrees with 200km/h icy winds whipping around him, while mum is at sea feeding her face.

It’s a tough gig as the dads try to balance the egg on their feet, keeping it warm with their feathered belly fat. They huddle together, with the occasional shuffle as any wrong move could see the egg tumble off dad’s feet and onto the ice, where it will freeze.

If the young hatches and mum still hasn’t returned, daddy doesn’t disappoint, regurgitating a substance from his oesophagus for his newborn chick. These dads don’t eat during this time, which can last for over 100 days. As a result they lose up to 50 per cent of their body weight. Ever the glutton for punishment, they’ll do it all again in another year’s time.


It’s usually long legs that males find attractive, but in the sea stereotypes are turned on their head. When it comes to sea spiders, it’s the female who falls for the charms of her eight-legged beau, and with good reason. His legs aren’t just made for walking, they’re made for reproduction.

The ladies carry their eggs around until they find ‘the one’. He then produces some fancy footwork that encourages her to release her eggs, which he then fertilises. The male collects the eggs and secretes a substance that attaches them to his special ‘legs’, called ovigers. He carries them with him until they hatch, with a few dedicated dad sea spiders continuing to carry their young around until they’re big enough to survive in the big blue by themselves.


This award goes to the lumpsucker, a funny-looking fish that will stick around for his young even if that means risking his own life. After setting up a nesting site in the shallows, which often includes a rocky crevice or depression in the sand, his lady love leaves around 200,000 eggs and then high-tails it back to the open ocean.

This doting dad faithfully protects his brood for up to eight weeks, aerating and fanning them with his fins and tail. He keeps a constant watch over his young and glues himself to the spot using his pelvic fins that have fused to form a large suction cup. Even when the tide goes out, instead of leaving his young high and dry this dedicated dad sticks around risking death, exposing him to hungry birds and other predators. Once his young have safely hatched, he returns to a lonely life in the open ocean.


The sea stallion takes fatherhood to the extreme, leaving others in his wake. He’s also every woman’s dream, and for good reason – he’s the one who gets pregnant and gives birth to the young! He’s the only male in the entire animal kingdom to do so.

When a male and female seahorse meet they engage in an elaborate underwater ballet, with some gentle prodding. If she likes him (and what’s not to like about a strapping male with a horse-like head, monkey tail and big pot-belly), the female deposits her precious eggs into his pot-belly pouch and ‘impregnates’ him. It’s here the magic happens and the male fertilises and incubates the young. Weeks later, he goes through contractions and gives birth to baby sea ponies and rides off into the sunset.


As you have seen, the extremes that these fathers will go to to protect their young are nothing short of inspirational and imaginative. They play a vital role in the nurturing and caring of the kids – although it often goes unrecognised and unseen.

So to all fathers out there, whether you have fur, fins, feet or flippers, we salute you all!

Creature Features