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Dugongs - reincarnation of women

 

diving with dugons

 

These mythical marine mammals graze regularly right here in the wide seagrass beds of Bunaken Marine Park. They are amazing creatures that will definitely surprise you if encountered on a dive or snorkeling trip. Any diver will get confused for a moment at the first sight and wonder what is that giant, somehow familiar but odd-looking, creature. The first time I saw a dugong during a safety stop at Fukui for a second I thought it was a tiger shark. And the moment it swam by us and looked at us, a big smile got on our faces and we realized it’s a dugong! A bit later I remembered that I was holding onto a camera and finally managed to push on the record button for some evidence.

Dugong has a dolphin-like tail, small eyes with limited vision, good hearing, paddle-like fore limbs, nostrils on top of the head and two teats behind each flipper. They grow up to 3 meters in length, weigh up to 400 kg and can live for 70 years. They swim mostly in shallow water feeding on seagrass beds and can hold their breath only for about 6 minutes at the time.

When you go snorkeling past the seagrass bed on the way to our amazing house reef, you can see white lines in the seagrass. These are dugong tracks, they dig up the whole plant with their large horseshoe-shaped mouth, shake the sand off and eat the grass. The best time to see dugongs here in Bunaken is around full moon or new moon in late afternoon when the tide is the highest. Many of our guests have seen them while diving or snorkeling on our house reef or at the seagrass bed.

 

snorkeling with dugong

 

Traditionally dugongs have had different meanings for different communities. For example in Malaysia and Philippines dugongs are called “lady of the sea”, in Kenya “queen of the sea” where they use them for food, medicine and decorations. In India they make dugong oil and in Japan they make carvings from their ribs. Southern Chinese call them ‘the miraculous fish”, but still regard it as bringing bad luck if you catch them, same as in the Philippines where they use parts of them to scare away bad spirits. Australian Aboriginals regard them as part of their aboriginality and in Papua New Guinea dugongs are a symbol of strength. In Thailand their tears are used as a love potion… and finally here in Indonesia they believe dugongs are reincarnations of women, so ladies, don’t get offended if someone calls you a dugong when you jump in for a swim from the boat!!

Even though in English dugongs are called ‘sea cows’ they are not related to cows but rather to elephants. Their closest relatives in the sea are manatees, the heart-shape tailed Atlantic cousins, and together they form the order ‘Sirenia’.

 

sea cow dugong

 

Dugongs are facing some problems too, their biggest threat being, unfortunately, humans. They are hunted for their meat and oil, and entanglement in fishing nets, vessel strikes and oil spills are very harmful for them. Disappearance of sea grass beds caused by reclamation, sewage, detergents, hyper saline water, waste products, mining etc. means a loss of their habitat.

Dugongs are slow in reproduction as they reach sexual maturity only at the age of 8-18 years and females give birth only few times during their lifespan to a single calf at the time. Parental care lasts for 2-7 years. Newborns start to feed on sea grass after birth, but nursing lasts up to 18 months. We have been extremely lucky to have spotted dugong mothers with their babies many times on our house reef right in front of Living Colours!

Text by Annika Hartell