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

A Strange Mermaid Called Dugong

#Indonesia #Alor

  Indonesia: Alor + Halmahera + Sumbawa - July 2018

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 

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

COVID-19. Can we travel to Indonesia from France? As of this writing (June 7, 2022), foreign travelers are again allowed to enter Indonesia without quarantine. There is no need to present a PCR test upon arrival if one is vaccinated. The 30-day tourist Visa on Arrival (VoA) is reinstated at all airports (500,000 IDR, about 35 €, renewable once), the B211A-tourism visa is also valid again. The following are still required: a certificate of vaccination with two or three doses for at least 14 days (one dose for the Johnson & Johnson), an insurance covering Covid-19 (for an amount of at least 13 400 €), as well as the registration on the application PeduliLindungi for smartphone (iOS or Android). For regularly updated information on the health situation and tourism in Indonesia, I invite you to visit this page of BaliAutrement agency.

A marine biologist at Alor

In this month of July 2018, I land in the Alor archipelago, in the east of Indonesia, not far from Timor. I settle down 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.

The accommodation is sea-facing, with simple but comfortable wooden cabins spread over a long deserted beach. I had already stayed there in 2012I was able to discover the magnificent coral reefs of the archipelago, swept by unpredictable currents.

On the spot, I have the great pleasure to find marine biologist Steven Weinbergwith whom I had filmed and photographed whale sharks two months earlier, in May 2018, in the Philippines, duringa diving cruise in TubbatahaThis exceptional marine park is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

This time, Steven is in Alor to accompany a small group of tourist divers, as part of a "bio" (biology) tour organized by Safari Bali Agency.

When I arrive, he confides to me with a smile that he has a new adventure to propose. A mini-expedition to see a dugong!

He organized this before the arrival of the last divers who were to join the group, it is not part of the official program. Steven had already seen the animal a few days earlier and he wants to go back to take pictures for his next book.

Of course, I can't resist such an attractive proposition. The only time I saw a dugong was from far away, a furtive shadow in the blue, in the waters of the island of Bangka, in North Sulawesi.

The dugong is a sirenian

The dugong? It is a marine mammal that belongs to the order of "sirenians", says Wikipedia. I love it... The scientists in charge of the classification of species are real poets.

Like his cousin the manateeThe dugong would indeed be at the origin of the myth of the mermaids. But in real life, the animal is more like a beast than a beauty... That said, from the surface, it is understandable that it can be an illusion.

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

Underwater, the dugong has a nice face. But it is better not to trust it. A human paddling in PMT (fins-mask-tuba) is no match for this powerful and massive animal, which is also very lively and fast when swimming.

The one I saw and photographed in Alor, a male not shy at all, was almost 3 meters long and must have weighed 300 kg. In short, a not really sexy animal and impossible to confuse with a mermaid. Larger individuals may, it seems, reach 4 meters and 400 kg...

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

An endangered species

The main occupation of this a priori harmless vegetarian animal consists in grazing like a cow on the underwater grass beds (up to 40kg per day, Steven tells me), in shallow water, along the coasts. And therefore close to humans, who have gradually decimated the dugong populations in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific...

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

Some links to learn 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

We don't really know how many dugongs there are in the world. I found the map below, which gives an approximate location:

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

You can find them 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, as well as in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu...

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

A mini expedition

Steven and I were met at a beach, where a narrow, multi-coloured traditional boat was waiting for us, its outriggers being PVC tubes painted with blue and white stripes. We quickly put on our wetsuits and leave the rest of our stuff in the car of the guy who gave us a lift.

On board, a rather intimidating guy, whom we guessed to be the leader of this "dugong tour", gave abrupt orders. He really doesn't look comfortable. Two crewmen show us our place at the stern of the boat and help us to put our bulky things. waterproof photographic housings 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 salvage engine that turns the propeller backfires loudly. Once off the coast in the shallow bay, the gruff captain starts chanting towards the sea. We can guess that he is calling the dugong, in his own way...

Once the engine is cut, we don't wait long. The crewmen have a good eye. They immediately spot the approaching dugong, while we have not seen anything at all... The animal comes and goes, turns around the hull, leaves. We have to be patient.

The dugong suddenly reappeared near the boat. We can hear him exhale and inhale, I see the flaps of his huge nostrils open and close, just in front of the outriggers. This almost human breath is disturbing, it reminds me my first whale in French Polynesia.

Our captain took the time to observe the behavior of the dugong, before authorizing Steven and me to get into the water, as we wanted to make pictures under the surface. We waited for a while, watching the comings and goings of the dugong.

Finally, we can take our masks and snorkels, our cameras and slide along the hull. But no question of swimming or moving away! In spite of the language barrier, the captain makes himself understood by gestures by making the big eyes. We are supposed to remain hung with a hand to the boat.

It is a bit frustrating, but I understand better these very strict instructions when I see the dugong under the surface. It is both for our security and to limit the interactions with the animal, because this one does not hesitate to come in contact. Love elks 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 come and ogle me very closely... (Alor, Indonesia, July 2018)

Despite its massive body, the dugong is flexible and agile. It has a deceptively debonair head with small inquisitive eyes and a funny flattened muffle underneath, which allows it to "graze" the underwater grass beds.

I admit, I'm not very comfortable when I suddenly see it heading straight for me. 😱 Instinctively, I turn straight into a barnacle, in suction cup mode against the hull of the boat...

Disappointed by my lack of reaction, the animal prefers to throw its devotion on Steven more boldly hung on a pendulum a few meters from me. We discover then the passionate assaults of which is capable a marine mammal towards a marine biologist... 😂 Not so easy to take pictures of such an enterprising dugong.

On the way back, Steven and I decide to nickname the animal "the lecherous dugong" because of a detail of its particularly salient anatomy. We laugh about it, we joke, we are especially delighted by this exceptional meeting 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 strange mermaid... (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 proudly poses with his local dugong conservation programme tee-shirt for the souvenir photo.

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

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

"Pak Oneh", whose full name is 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, now a committed environmentalist, who acts for the good of his community and the environment.

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

Among the initiatives proposed: protecting dugongs instead of hunting them, taking care of coral and mangroves, continuing to fish in the traditional way, finding solutions to better manage waste, favoring ecotourism over mass tourism, supporting scientific missions to study and census dugongs...

So many good ideas, which involve the local population and which will eventually bear fruit, one can hope. But nothing is simple or easy in these Indonesian islands, where most people are very poor. Environmental actions are not exactly the main concern of the families in their daily life.

I hesitated for a long time 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 area, even if it is not really a secret anymore. A local travel agency even offers excursions like the one we did. But I also think that it is important to make the visitors aware of the situation, so that the observation is done in the most respectful conditions possible for the animal. Eco-tourism can surely contribute to save the dugongs.

"Our dugong was obviously in rut when we observed it. Does it have a mate and offspring? I have not been able to find out. I hope in any case that Pak Oneh and the other people involved in the local conservation program will continue to look after him and that we will see him one day walking around with his family in the waters of Alor...

Update, January 2022. I add below another video, more recent, shot by a couple of passionate divers, expatriates in Indonesia, the French Martiniquean Celine Monfort and the Dutchman Niels Prinssen (see their channel on YouTube and their website Travel2Sea), who had the same experience as Steven and me, when they were in Alor in October 2020. I notice that the dugong is similarly exhibitionist with them... 😂

  Indonesia: Alor + Halmahera + Sumbawa - July 2018