The splendid sea perch is a colourful fish of the general shape of the pink maomao but with larger fins and a blunter snout. The lateral line is unusual in that it rises abruptly from behind the head and runs along very close to the apex of the back.
Splendid sea perches are sequential hermaphrodites but unlike the redbanded perch and others of this family they change colour as they change sex and hence males and females have completely different colour patterns. Females are an almost uniform orange-red, tinged with purple on the fins and head, and with a bright red pectoral fin base. Males usually have a blue-purple head and forward half of the body with an orange-red hind body, a bright yellow caudal peduncle and a purple tail fin. All the other fins are pale blue and the base of the pectoral fin is a bright red.
In the winter spawning season the males adopt an even more striking colour - the entire body and fins become covered with a jagged patterning of glowing blue-white, leaving irregular lines and patches of orange showing through, and red lobes on the tail fin.