The ontogeny of larval body density and the morphological and histological events during swimbladder development were investigated in two cohorts of yellowtail kingfish Seriola lalandi larvae to understand the relationship between larval morphology and body density. Larvae <3 days post hatch (dph) were positively buoyant with a mean ± s.d. body density of 1·023 ± 0·001 g cm−3. Histological evidence demonstrated that S. lalandi larvae are initially transient physostomes with the primordial swimbladder derived from the evagination of the gut ventral to the notochord and seen at 2 dph. A pneumatic duct connected the swimbladder to the oesophagus, but degenerated after 5 dph. Initial swimbladder (SB) inflation occurred on 3 dph, and the inflation window was 3–5 dph when the pneumatic duct was still connected to the gut. The swimbladder volume increased with larval age and the epithelial lining on the swimbladder became flattened squamous cells after initial inflation. Seriola lalandi developed into a physoclist with the formation of the rete mirabile and the gas-secreting gland comprised low-columnar epithelial cells. Larvae with successfully inflated swimbladders remained positively buoyant, whereas larvae without SB inflation became negatively buoyant and their body density gradually reached 1·030 ± 0·001 g cm−3 by 10 dph. Diel density changes were observed after 5 dph, owing to day time deflation and night-time inflation of the swimbladder. These results show that SB inflation has a direct effect on body density in larval S. lalandi and environmental factors should be further investigated to enhance the rate of SB inflation to prevent the sinking death syndrome in the early life stage of the fish larvae.