The distance travelled by marine larvae varies by seven orders of magnitude. Dispersal shapes marine biodiversity, and must be understood if marine systems are to be well managed. Because warmer temperatures quicken larval development, larval durations might be systematically shorter in the tropics relative to those at high latitudes. Nevertheless, life history and hydrodynamics also covary with latitude—these also affect dispersal, precluding any clear expectation of how dispersal changes at a global scale. Here we combine data from the literature encompassing >750 marine organisms from seven phyla with oceanographic data on current speeds, to quantify the overall latitudinal gradient in larval dispersal distance. We find that planktonic duration increased with latitude, confirming predictions that temperature effects outweigh all others across global scales. However, while tropical species have the shortest planktonic durations, realized dispersal distances were predicted to be greatest in the tropics and at high latitudes, and lowest at mid-latitudes. At high latitudes, greater dispersal distances were driven by moderate current speed and longer planktonic durations. In the tropics, fast currents overwhelmed the effect of short planktonic durations. Our results contradict previous hypotheses based on biology or physics alone; rather, biology and physics together shape marine dispersal patterns.