The dugong swims in shallow waters, its main activity being to feed on the seagrass beds of the bay. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
The dugong swims in shallow waters, its main activity being to feed on the seagrass beds of the bay. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)

A Strange Mermaid Called Dugong

#Indonesia

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic Google translation from a post originally written in French. My apologies for the weird sentences and the funny mistakes that could gave been generated during the process. If you can read French, the original and correct version can be found here:

  Indonesia : Alor + Halmahera + Sumbawa – July 2018

It is called dugong or "marine cow". I had the chance to observe this fascinating animal in its natural environment in Indonesia.

A marine biologist at Alor

In this month of July 2018, I arrive in the archipelago ofsoin eastern Indonesia, not far from Timor. I settle for eight days on the island of Pantar at Alor Divers. A nice little diving resort created by a Franco-Slovenian couple, Gilles and Neya.

It is located in front of the sea, in wooden bungalows, simple but comfortable, spread over a long deserted beach. I had stayed there in 2012, which allowed me to discover the magnificent coral reefs of the archipelago, swept by unpredictable currents.

On the spot, I have the immense pleasure to find marine biologist Steven Weinberg, with whom I had filmed and photographed whale sharks two months earlier, in May 2018, in the Philippines, whena diving cruise in Tubbataha, an exceptional marine park on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

This time, Steven is in Alor to accompany a small group of divers tourists, as part of an "organic" tour organized by the Safari Bali agency.

When I arrive, he tells me with a smile that he has a new adventure to offer me. A mini expedition to see a dugong! He organized this before the arrival of the last divers who must join the group, it is not part of the official program. Steven has already seen the animal a few days earlier and wants to go back to take pictures for his next book.

Of course, I can not resist such a tempting proposition. The only time I saw a dugong was by far, a stealthy shadow in the blue, in the waters of Bangka Island, in North Sulawesi.

The dugong is a sirenian

The dugong? It is a marine mammal that belongs to the order of "sirenians", precise Wikipedia. I love ... The scientists responsible for classifying species are real poets.

Like his cousin the manatee, the dugong would indeed at the origin of the myth of the sirens. But in real life, the animal is more of the beast than the beautiful ... That said, from the surface, we understand that he can delude himself.

A shadow is coming ... A siren? No, a dugong! (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
A shadow is coming ... A siren? No, a dugong! (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)

Underwater, the dugong has a nice face. But better not to trust it. A man paddling in PMT (palms-mask-tuba) is not the weight, in front of this powerful and massive animal, which is also very quick and fast when swimming.

The one I saw and photographed in Alor, a shy male at all, was about 3 meters long and had to weigh well in the 300 kg. In short, a beast not really sexy and impossible to confuse with a mermaid. Larger individuals can, it seems, reach 4 meters and 400 kg ...

The dugong swims in shallow waters, its main activity being to feed on the seagrass beds of the bay. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
The dugong swims in shallow water, its main activity being to feed on the meadows of the bay. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)

An endangered species

The main occupation of this a priori harmless vegetarian animal is to graze like a cow underwater seagrasses (up to 40kg per day, Steven tells me), in shallow water, along the coasts. And so close to men, who have gradually decimated dugong populations in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific ...

Result, the species is now "vulnerable" and "threatened", according to'IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Some links to find out more:

On the WWF France website → Dugong, a siren in danger
The card on Doris website → The dugong
In English → Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project

It is unclear how many dugongs are in the world. I found the map below, which gives approximately their location:

(Source: Wikimedia / Chermundy / IUCN / CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Source: Wikimedia / Chermundy / IUCN / CC BY-SA 3.0)

It can be found in the Red Sea in Egypt. In the Indian Ocean in Mozambique, Madagascar, Sri Lanka. In the waters of the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu ...

But the animal has become very rare. To meet one is an event for divers who are keen on animal watching.

A mini expedition

Steven and I have an appointment on a beach, where we wait for a narrow traditional multicolored boat, whose pendulums are PVC tubes painted with blue and white stripes. We put on our suits quickly and leave the rest of our stuff in the car of the guy who sent us.

On board, a guy a bit intimidating, who is supposed to be the leader of this "dugong tour", gives sudden orders. It really does not look convenient. Two crewmen point to our place at the stern of the barcasse and help us to pack our bulky waterproof photographic boxes on the tiny platform ...

Pak Oneh, on his multicolored boat. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
Pak Oneh, on his multicolored boat. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
From the boat, everyone looks forward to the dugong. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
From the boat, everyone looks forward to the dugong. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)

With us, there are three other tourists, Americans, installed at the bow. The recovery engine that turns the petrile propeller loudly. Once off the shallow bay, the grumpy captain begins chanting to the sea. We guess he calls the dugong, in his own way ...

Once the engine is cut, we do not wait long. The crewmen have the eye. They immediately spot the dugong approaching, while we have not seen anything ... The animal comes and goes, turns around the hull, leaves. You have to be patient.

The dugong reappears suddenly near the boat. We hear it exhale and inspire, I see the flaps of its huge nostrils open and close, just in front of the rockers. This almost human breath is disturbing, it reminds me my first whale in Polynesia.

Our captain takes the time to observe the behavior of the dugong, before allowing us to put in the water, Steven and me, who wish to make images under the surface. We wait a moment, watching the comings and goings of the dugong.

Finally, we can take our masks and snorkels, our cameras and slide us along the hull. But no question of swimming or going away! Despite the language barrier, the captain is well understood by gestures while making big eyes. We are supposed to hang with one hand on the boat.

It's a little frustrating, but I understand better these very strict instructions, seeing the dugong evolve under the surface. This is both for our safety and to limit interactions with the animal, because it does not hesitate to come into contact. Enchanting impulses totally fascinating, but not very reassuring ...

The dugong does not hesitate to look at me very closely ... (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
The dugong does not hesitate to look at me very closely ... (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)

Despite its massive body, the dugong is flexible and agile. He has a deceptively debonair head with small inquisitive eyes and a funny muffle flattened underneath, which allows him to "graze" the seagrass meadows.

I confess, I'm not very comfortable when I see him suddenly run right on me. 😱 Instinctively, I transform myself directly in Bernic, in suction mode against the hull of the boat ...

Disappointed by my lack of reaction, the animal prefers to set his sights on Steven bolder hung on a pendulum a few meters from me. We then discover the passionate assaults that a marine mammal is capable of towards a marine biologist ... 😂 Not so easy to take pictures of such an enterprising dugong.

In return, Steven and I decide to nickname the animal "legong lewd" because of a detail of his anatomy particularly salient. We laugh, we joke, we are especially delighted with this exceptional encounter with such a rare animal. This mini expedition is a success.

Glued to the hull of the boat behind me, I admire this funny siren ... (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
Glued to the hull of the boat behind me, I admire this funny siren ... (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
No doubt, this dugong is a male ... (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
No doubt, this dugong is a male ... (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
An unforgettable excursion! (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
An unforgettable excursion! (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018 - Photo by Steven Weinberg)

Dugongs and men

Our gruff captain, too, seems happy. After taking us back safely, he even decides to smile and poses proudly with his T-shirt from the local dugong conservation program for the souvenir photo.

Pak Oneh, the "gentleman dugong" who organizes the observation outings in the bay. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)
Pak Oneh, the "gentleman dugong" who organizes the observation outings in the bay. (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)

I will learn more about this particular character later, when I have a reliable internet connection, through several articles in Indonesian media and on the WWF website.

"Pak Oneh", full name Onesimus Laa, is the protector of the dugongs. In the short documentary below, the guardian angel of the sirenians presents himself as a repentant thug, become a committed ecologist, who now acts for the good of his community and the environment.

This 12-minute film (subtitled in English), shot in late 2017 and posted on YouTube in June 2018, was shot with Indonesian actor Arifin Putra, to promote the local actions of the country. Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project. Created in Abu Dhabi, this environmental program, supported among others by the UN, has the mission ofto stop the disappearance of dugongs and their habitat in the world.

Proposed initiatives include protecting dugongs instead of hunting them, caring for coral and mangroves, continuing to fish traditionally, finding solutions for better waste management, favoring ecotourism for mass tourism, supporting missions scientific study and census dugongs ...

So many good ideas, that involve the local population and who will eventually bear fruit, we can hope. But nothing is simple or easy in these Indonesian islands, where most people are very poor. Actions for the environment are not exactly what preoccupies families in their daily lives.

I have long hesitated to publish this article, knowing that it is not necessarily a good thing to draw attention to the presence of one or more dugongs in the region, even if it is not really a secret anymore. . A local travel agency even offers tours like the one we did. But I also say that it is important to educate visitors, so that the observation is done in the most respectful conditions possible for the animal. Eco-tourism can surely help save the dugongs.

"Our" dugong, who was obviously in rut when we saw him, does he have a partner and offspring? I did not know it. I hope that Pak Oneh and the other people involved in the local conservation program will continue to watch over him and that one day he will see him walking with his family in the waters of Alor ...

😉

  Indonesia : Alor + Halmahera + Sumbawa – July 2018

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