The epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) is an essential process that occurs repeatedly during embryogenesis whereby stably adherent cells convert to an actively migrating state. While much is known about the factors and events that initiate the EMT, the steps that cells undergo to become directionally migratory are far less well understood. Zebrafish embryos lacking the transcription factors Tbx16/Spadetail and Mesogenin1 (Msgn1) are a valuable system for investigating the EMT. Mesodermal cells in these embryos are unable to perform the EMT necessary to leave the most posterior end of the body (the tailbud) and join the pre-somitic mesoderm, a process that is conserved in all vertebrates. It has previously been very difficult to study this EMT in vertebrates because of the multiple cell types in the tailbud and the morphogenetic changes the whole embryo undergoes. Here, we describe a novel tissue explant system for imaging the mesodermal cell EMT in vivo that allows us to investigate the requirements for cells to acquire migratory properties during the EMT with high spatio-temporal resolution. This method revealed that, despite the inability of tbx16;msgn1-deficient cells to leave the tailbud, actin-based protrusions form surprisingly normally in these cells and they become highly motile. However, tbx16;msgn1-deficient cells have specific cell-autonomous defects in the persistence and anterior direction of migration because the lamellipodia they form are not productive in driving anteriorward migration. Additionally, we show that mesoderm morphogenesis and differentiation are separable and that there is a migratory cue that directs mesodermal cell migration that is independent of Tbx16 and Msgn1. This work defines changes that cells undergo as they complete the EMT and provides new insight into the mechanisms required in vivo for cells to become mesenchymal.