Populations of widespread species often differ in phenotypic traits, although rarely in such a dramatic fashion as revealed by research on turtle-headed seasnakes (Emydocephalus annulatus). These snakes are highly philopatric, with mark–recapture studies showing that the interchange of individuals rarely occurs even between two adjacent bays (separated by < 1.2 km) in Noumea, New Caledonia. Data on > 500 field-captured snakes from these two bays reveal significant differences between these two locations in snake morphology (mean body length, relative tail length, head shape), colour, ecology (body condition, growth rate, incidence of algal fouling), behaviour (antipredator tactics), and locomotor performance. For some traits, the disparity was very marked (e.g. mean swimming speeds differed by > 30%). The causal bases for these phenotypic divergences may involve founder effects, local adaptation, and phenotypic plasticity. The spatial divergence in phenotypic traits offers a cautionary tale both for researchers (sampling of only a few populations may fail to provide a valid overview of the morphology, performance, and behaviour of a species) and managers (loss of local populations may eliminate distinctive genetic variation). © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, ••, ••–••.